Ex-Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ with China Under Scrutiny

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Ex-Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ with China Under Scrutiny

Did the former president broker an informal deal with the Chinese government over the South China Sea?

Ex-Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s ‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ with China Under Scrutiny

A Philippine supply boat sails near the BRP Sierra Madre after evading a Chinese coast guard ship blockade at Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungin Shoal, at the disputed South China Sea during a rotation and resupply mission on Tuesday, Aug. 22, 2023.

Credit: AP Photo/Aaron Favila

Former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte allegedly made a “gentleman’s agreement” with the Chinese government for handling tensions in the South China Sea.

Harry Roque, who served as Duterte’s presidential spokesperson, told the media this week that Duterte enjoined the Chinese government to observe the status quo in the disputed waters, which meant there would be no construction of military outposts.

In the case of the Philippines, Duterte allegedly agreed that his government would only send basic supplies to the stranded ship BRP Sierra Madre in the shallow waters of Second Thomas Shoal, known to Manila as Ayungin Shoal and to Beijing as Ren’ai Jiao.

The ship was deliberately grounded in 1999 to assert the Philippines’ maritime sovereignty. The 2016 ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration recognized that Second Thomas Shoal lies within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. China did not participate in the arbitration and continued to assert its claim over almost all areas of the South China Sea.

Since last year, Chinese vessels have repeatedly harassed and blocked Philippine ships intending to deliver supplies to the stranded BRP Sierra Madre. The tension escalated several times after Chinese ships used water cannons to disrupt the Philippine mission. Chinese officials have claimed that the Philippines violated an earlier agreement that only basic supplies would be delivered to Filipino sailors and troops, and not construction materials.

Are they referring to Duterte’s “gentleman’s agreement” with China? President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said in 2023 that he was not aware of any agreement made by the Philippine government with China concerning the status of the stranded ship.

Opposition Senator Risa Hontiveros has already filed a resolution seeking a probe into this agreement. She wanted to confirm if the decision to restrict the repair and rehabilitation of the stranded ship was an act of treason.

“If we stop reinforcing the Sierra Madre, we not only lose a crucial, strategic outpost, but also fail to defend our sovereignty,” Hontiveros said. She added that “Duterte always kowtowed to Beijing, putting his relationship with China first before our national interest.”

For retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, who was part of the legal team that pursued the arbitral case against China, the agreement was “lopsided” and a “disguised surrender” of the country’s rights “as it gave China veto power over our exclusive right to erect structures on Ayungin Shoal.”

Roque defended Duterte’s approach in dealing with China since it supposedly benefited the country. “Personally, Duterte enabled friendly relations and enabled us to advance the Philippines’ interest in terms of investment and trade. (It) certainly minimized water cannon incidents,” he said in a media interview.

Roque subsequently clarified his statement by saying that the agreement referred to the West Philippine Sea, as Manila refers to its part of the South China Sea, and did not include the Second Thomas Shoal. Another former spokesperson of Duterte told the media that the former president made no “gentleman’s agreement” with China.

Reacting to the contradictory statements of Duterte’s camp, former Senator Leila de Lima expressed her frustration on X (Twitter). “Two years after they left office, the Duterte Cabinet continues its tradition of disorganization, incompetence and confusion.”

Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. noted that “accountability” is important in resolving the issue, but he advised the public to focus on China’s “illegal activities”.

“Let us not fall into the trap set by Chinese propaganda of refocusing the debate on a so-called promise, while deflecting attention away from China’s government, thereby freeing and allowing them to continue with their illegal activities,” he said in a statement.

It is unlikely that the Senate will summon Duterte and compel him to divulge his “gentleman’s agreement” with China. Besides, the agreement has been superseded by the new approach adopted by the Marcos government, which involves strengthening the country’s security partnership with the United States government.