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China: Marcos gov’t abandons ‘new approach’ to ease WPS tensions

By: Dona Pazzibungan - | April 19,2024 - 09:03 AM

Ayungin Shoal, shown here with its clear waters and pristine marine formations, with only the BRP Sierra Madre as its man-made fixture, continues to be at the center of a diplomatic row between Manila and Beijing that seems to get murkier each day.

DECEPTIVE CALM Ayungin Shoal, shown here with its clear waters and pristine marine formations, with only the BRP Sierra Madre as its man-made fixture, continues to be at the center of a diplomatic row between Manila and Beijing that seems to get murkier each day. —NIÑO JESUS ORBETA

China claimed they had an “internal understanding” and a “new approach” to ease tension at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea with the Philippines. However, they said the Marcos administration later “abandoned” it after seven months.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila made this statement on Thursday, a week after Beijing and former President Rodrigo Duterte confirmed a “gentleman’s agreement” to maintain the “status quo” in the West Philippine Sea. Duterte’s government agreed not to repair or reinforce the military outpost at Ayungin, which is the deteriorating World War II-era warship BRP Sierra Madre, as per China’s demands.

‘Unilaterally abandoned’

The agreement was “no secret” as “relevant departments and agencies” on both sides were guided by it in “effectively maintaining peace and stability at Ren’ai Jiao,” the Chinese name for Ayungin, until early February 2023, the statement said.

READ: China: Marcos admin knows WPS ‘deal’ with Duterte, new handling of row

Since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office in 2022, the embassy said that the Chinese side “repeatedly briefed” his administration regarding the agreement, “made representations” on the Ayungin issue and “remained committed” to finding ways to manage the “differences” between the Philippines and China through dialogue and consultation.

“In addition to the meetings of China-Philippines Bilateral Consultation Mechanism on the South China Sea (BCM), the Chinese side invited the Envoy of the President to China for Special Concerns of the Philippines [Teodoro Locsin Jr.] to Beijing last September to discuss how to properly manage the situation at Ren’ai Jiao, which resulted in an internal understanding,” the statement said.

“A ‘new model’ for management of the Ren’ai Jiao situation was also agreed upon by both sides early this year after rounds of serious communications with the Philippine military,” it added.

Only one mission to resupply the troops on the Sierra Madre was covered by “these understandings and arrangements” before they were “unilaterally abandoned by the Philippine side for no good reason” the Chinese Embassy said.

READ: Marcos warns of countermeasures in response to Chinese aggression at sea

Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson Col. Francel Margareth Padilla declined making a direct comment on the so-called “new model” to manage the Ayungin situation.

Padilla instead sent an AFP statement saying it was the “prerogative of the Philippines to engage in activities that contribute to our national security and defense posture” such as the “Balikatan” (shoulder-to-shoulder) exercises.

She deferred further statements to the “ministerial level.”

‘Walang galawan’

In a press conference on April 11, Duterte confirmed he had a “gentleman’s agreement” with China to keep the “status quo,” meaning “walang galawan” (no movement) and not to bring construction materials to the Sierra Madre.

He said the agreement was meant to prevent an armed confrontation between Filipinos and Chinese over the maritime dispute.

Neither Duterte nor the Chinese Embassy said when the supposed agreement was reached, but a diplomatic source said this was in 2021.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) mentioned the so-called agreement for the first time on March 12, but only to reject it.

“The proposal raised by Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Sun Weidong in March 2023 referred to a so-called ‘gentleman’s agreement’ wherein China insisted on actions that would be deemed as acquiescence or recognition of China’s control and administration over the Ayungin Shoal as China’s territory,” the DFA said in a statement.

“As Ayungin Shoal is a part of the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines, the proposal of China could not be considered by the Philippines without violating the Philippine constitution or international law,” it said.

Arroyo, Estrada

While on a visit to Washington to formalize the trilateral accord with US President Joe Biden and Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida last week, Mr. Marcos said he was unaware of the gentleman’s agreement and said he was rescinding it if it did exist.

In August last year, he rescinded another purported agreement, that the Philippines would remove the Sierra Madre from Ayungin.

Former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, who served for nine years after Joseph Estrada, also denied making any promise to tow away the ship.

The Sierra Madre was intentionally run aground by the Estrada administration at Ayungin in 1999 to serve as the AFP’s outpost four years after China unilaterally built “fishermen’s shelters” at nearby Panganiban (Mischief) Reef. Now, that reef is one of the biggest of the seven artificial islands built by the Chinese within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer EEZ.

Philippine vessels came under aggressive behavior from Chinese vessels blocking resupply missions to the Ayungin outpost during the administration of President Benigno Aquino III.

In March 2014, the Philippine military was forced to airdrop supplies to the troops on the Sierra Madre because of the Chinese blockade of resupply boats. The military did the same in January this year.

Arbitral award

The Aquino administration filed an arbitration case against China over its encroachments into the country’s EEZ in January 2013, challenging Beijing’s expansive claims to nearly the entire South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea.

In 2016, the Philippines won an arbitral award under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), upholding its sovereign rights over its EEZ and invalidating China’s sweeping claims for having no legal basis.

Despite the agreement between Duterte and China, the Chinese still took aggressive and dangerous maneuvers to block Philippine supply ships headed to the Sierra Madre.

In November 2021, the military aborted a resupply mission after China Coast Guard ships blocked and fired water cannons on the supply boats.

In April 2022, the Chinese deployed fishing nets and buoys near the traditional entrance to the Sierra Madre. These fishing gear could have entangled the propellers and endangered their vessel and crew.

Alan silent

Sen. Alan Cayetano, who served as Duterte’s foreign secretary from May 2017 to October 2018, has not commented on the agreement.

Locsin, who served as foreign secretary from October 2018 until the end of the Duterte administration on June 30, 2022, has also not made any comment.

Locsin, the current ambassador to the United Kingdom, was named the special envoy to China in August last year.

Meanwhile in a statement on Thursday, the DFA defended the Philippines’ “sovereign choice” to strengthen ties with the United States and Japan.

“The source of tension in our region is well known to all. China should reflect upon its own actions in the South China Sea and the West Philippine Sea,” said the DFA.

“It is China’s excessive maritime claims and aggressive behavior, including its militarization of reclaimed features, that are undermining regional peace and stability and raising tensions,” it added. —WITH REPORTS FROM NESTOR CORRALES AND INQUIRER RESEARCH

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TAGS: Ayungin Shoal, China, Chinese Embassy, Rodrigo Duterte, WPS

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