Philippines Denies Chinese Claim About South China Sea ‘Agreement’

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Philippines Denies Chinese Claim About South China Sea ‘Agreement’

Earlier this month, a Chinese embassy spokesperson said that the two nations had reached a “common understanding” on the dispute.

Philippines Denies Chinese Claim About South China Sea ‘Agreement’
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The Philippines has again denied a Chinese claim that the two countries had reached an agreement over an intensifying maritime dispute in the South China Sea, describing it as part of a propaganda effort to delegitimize Manila’s claims in the contested waterway.

In a statement on Saturday, Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro said that his department was “not aware of, nor is it a party to, any internal agreement with China on Ayungin Shoal since President Ferdinand R. Marcos Jr. took office,” the Philippine Star reported. He added that the Defense Department had “not had any contact with any Chinese government officials since last year.”

Ayungin Shoal is Manila’s term for Second Thomas Shoal, a Philippine-occupied shoal in the Spratly Islands, which has seen a series of recent confrontations between Chinese and Philippine vessels. The conflict has centered on the China Coast Guard’s efforts to prevent the Philippines from resupplying the troops in the rusting shell of the BRP Sierra Madre, a warship that it purposely grounded on the shoal in 1999.

This has resulted in several incidents in which Philippine supply boats have been rammed and shot with high-pressure water cannons, in some cases injuring crewmembers.

Teodoro was responding to vague comments from a spokesperson of the Chinese embassy in the Philippines, who said on April 18 that the two countries had agreed earlier this year to a “new model” for managing tensions at the shoal and had reached a “common understanding.”

The Philippine defense chief pulled no punches in dismissing Beijing’s implication that Manila had violated an agreement related to the shoal. “The narrative that unnamed or unidentified Chinese officials are propagating is another crude attempt to advance a falsehood,” he said in the statement.

The periodic incidents at Second Thomas Shoal have prompted a heated war of rhetoric between the two sides: Beijing issuing icy threats and the Philippines offering hot-blooded denunciations of the Chinese violations of Philippine sovereignty.

Throughout this exchange, Chinese officials have justified their forceful actions on the basis of another informal agreement brokered by Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte. Under this so-called “gentleman’s agreement,” Duterte supposedly pledged that the Philippines would not send construction materials to repair the BRP Sierra Madre – a pledge that Manila has allegedly violated in recent months.

The Defense Department and President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. have both denied knowledge of any “gentleman’s agreement,” and that the Philippines was seeking to carry out construction works at Second Thomas Shoal. Earlier this month, Marcos said that he was “horrified by the idea that we have compromised, through a secret agreement, the territory, the sovereignty, and the sovereign rights of the Filipinos.”

Gen. Jonathan Malaya, assistant director of the National Security Council, said that the Chinese claims were a way of making the Philippines appear to be responsible for the recent increase in tensions – and hence for any further escalation.

“First, it was the alleged ‘promise’ which then became the ‘gentleman’s agreement’ and now the latest version, the ‘new model’ or ‘internal understanding’,” Malaya said in a separate statement quoted by the Star. “The propaganda masters are clearly working overtime in Beijing to sow discord and division in our country.”

The uncompromising tone that has crept into official Philippine statements about the South China Sea reflects both Beijing’s consistently unresponsive and inflexible position on the disputes, and the less compromising position that Marcos has taken to the issue since taking office in 2022. The discouraging thing is the extent to which the two sides continue to talk past each other. Even as they edge closer to the point of coming to blows over Second Thomas Shoal, there are scant signs of an improvement, or even a stabilization, in relations.