Philippine Commander Denies ‘Deal’ Over South China Sea Shoal

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Philippine Commander Denies ‘Deal’ Over South China Sea Shoal

A Senate Committee is investigating the Chinese Embassy’s alleged recording of a phone call between Carlos and a Chinese military attaché in January.

Philippine Commander Denies ‘Deal’ Over South China Sea Shoal

Western Command chief Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos of the Philippine Navy gestures as he talks to reporters in Palawan province, southern Philippines on Wednesday, March 6, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Aaron Favila

A Philippine Navy commander has denied forging a “new deal” with the Chinese government to de-escalate tensions over a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, breaking his silence for the first time since leaving his post in early May.

Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos yesterday fronted a hearing of a Senate Committee that is leading an investigation into the Chinese Embassy’s alleged recording of a phone call made in early January between Carlos and a Chinese military attaché.

Carlos admitted to the Senate hearing that the conversation had taken place, but asserted that he “did not forge any agreement at the level and magnitude that will bind our two countries for the long term and redefine foreign policy,” according to a report by Rappler.

“I did not enter into any secret deals that will compromise the interests of our country,” he added. “We are on the same team. Let us be united against this false narrative.”

The recording in question was released by the Chinese embassy in Manila to selected media outlets earlier this month, in order to support Beijing’s claims that the two nations had reached an informal agreement about how to manage tensions over Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands – an agreement that it claimed the Philippines had violated.

At the time, Carlos was chief of the Palawan-based Western Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), which has operational responsibility for the Philippines’ possessions in the Spratly Islands. He went on leave just before the recording was released, and was subsequently replaced as the head of Western Command. He has not spoken about the recorded conversation since vacating his post. Many Philippine press reports claim that Carlos was dismissed from his post.

The recorded conversation, which took place between Carlos and an official he could identify only as “Colonel Li,” addresses the management of tensions at Second Thomas Shoal, a Philippine-occupied atoll in the Spratly Islands. The atoll has seen a string of dangerous confrontations between Chinese and Philippine vessels over the past 18 months, resulting from the China Coast Guard’s attempts to prevent the Philippines from resupplying the BRP Sierra Madre, a grounded warship that functions as its outpost on the shoal.

Carlos confirmed during the Senate hearing that a call had taken place in January, but said that it was “casual and informal” and lasted no longer than five minutes, contrary to Chinese officials’ claims that the conversation went for 12 minutes. He said simply that he and Li “explored ways to reduce tensions” over Manila’s resupply missions to the shoal, after an incident in early December in which Chinese vessels rammed Philippine ships and doused them with high-pressure water cannons close to Second Thomas Shoal. The incident prompted President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to suggest that the country needed to undertake a “paradigm shift” in how it approaches the South China Sea, given that diplomatic efforts with Beijing were headed in a “poor direction.”

“We did not discuss the new model. We did not discuss the term,” Carlos said of the January call. “‘Common understanding,’ ‘new model’ were not part of our conversation.”

The Chinese embassy’s release of the details of the call has prompted suggestions that it was recorded in violation of Philippine law, prompting the current investigation by the Senate Committee on National Defense and Security, Peace, Unification and Reconciliation.

Carlos told the committee that he did not consent to a recording of the phone call with Li. “I condemn the act of the Chinese Embassy to record the conversation without my consent, much more to divulge it to the public with malicious twist and manipulation in order to appear that our discussion supported the corrosive narrative of the People’s Republic of China,” he said.

According to the Straits Times, a senior counsel for the Philippine Department of Justice said “there indeed was wiretapping,” which would violate domestic laws. Meanwhile, Marcos’ National Security Adviser Eduardo Ano has called for Chinese diplomats to be expelled over the leak of the conversation, accusing China’s embassy in Manila of spreading “disinformation, misinformation, and malinformation.”

The “new model” is just one of several agreements that Beijing claims the Philippines has violated, including a pledge to tow away the Sierra Madre from Second Thomas Shoal, and an agreement not to transport construction materials to the outpost. Like Carlos, the Philippine government has denied all of these claims.

The leak of the recorded call points to a lack of trust between Beijing and Manila, which are now sparring in public with little concern for the downward trajectory of their relations. As things stand, there is no sign of conciliation on either side – understandably so, from the Philippine perspective – suggesting that things will get a lot worse before they get better.