Philippines to Probe Recording of Alleged South China Sea Agreement

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Philippines to Probe Recording of Alleged South China Sea Agreement

The recording, released this week by the Chinese embassy in Manila, purports to lay out a “new model” for managing tensions at Second Thomas Shoal in the Spratly Islands.

Philippines to Probe Recording of Alleged South China Sea Agreement

Philippine resupply vessel Unaizah May 4, left, is hit by two Chinese coast guard water canons as they tried to enter the Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungin Shoal, in the disputed South China Sea on March 5, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Aaron Favila, File

The Philippines’ defense chief has called for an investigation into a recording of an alleged phone conversation between a Chinese official and a senior Philippine military commander, regarding a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.

The recording in question was released by the Chinese embassy in Manila this week, in order to support Beijing’s claims that the two nations had reached an informal agreement about the status of Second Thomas Shoal – an agreement that it claims the Philippines has violated.

Speaking to reporters yesterday, Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. said that if Chinese officials had covertly recorded the conversation, they may have “violated international relations and Philippine laws.”

“If it is true that the Chinese embassy had a recording with someone from the Philippines, then they are admitting they violated the laws of the Republic of the Philippines, particularly the Anti-Wiretapping Law,” Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. told reporters, BenarNews reported.

The recording, which was released along with a transcript to selected Philippine news outlets on Tuesday, purports to document a call in January between Philippine Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos, chief of the Western Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), and an unidentified Chinese official. The Palawan-based Western Command, or Wescom, has operational responsibility for the Philippines’ possessions in the Spratly Islands.

The discussion refers to the management of tensions at Second Thomas Shoal, a Philippine-occupied atoll in the Spratly Islands. The atoll has seen a rash of 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. China says that the Philippines has reneged on a number of previous agreements made under President Rodrigo Duterte prior to 2022, including a supposed pledge to tow away the Sierra Madre, which it grounded purposefully on the shoal in 1999, and an agreement not to transport construction materials to the outpost.

Late last week, the Chinese embassy in Manila publicized what it claims is an unwritten 2016 agreement with the Philippines over access to disputed features in the South China Sea. Under this “temporary special arrangement,” the embassy said, the two sides agreed to allow small-scale fishing operations around the islands but would restrict access by military, coast guard, and other official planes and ships to the 12 nautical mile limit of territorial waters. The deal was reportedly agreed during Duterte’s visit to Beijing in October 2016.

Then, on May 6, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian, told a regular press briefing that a supposed separate agreement to manage the tensions at Second Thomas Shoal was made this year “after multiple rounds of discussions through the diplomatic channel and AFP Wescom.” He claimed that “the new model has been approved by all key officials in the Philippine chain of command.” The following day, the AFP stated that Carlos had gone on “personal leave,” though it denied this was connected in any way with the Chinese claims. The exact timing of his leave request is unclear.

In the recording released by the Chinese embassy, the Filipino speaker identified as Carlos agreed to a number of things, according to Rappler’s description of the transcript. First, that resupply missions to Second Thomas Shoal would be restricted to one Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) ship and one civilian vessel (over the past year, the PCG has deployed at least two of its ships as escorts for two Navy-contracted civilian supply boats); second, that the Philippines would notify the Chinese government at least two days ahead of a resupply mission; and third, that the “new model” had been approved by AFP chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr., Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr., National Security Adviser Eduardo Año, “and another name which the transcript redacted.” Brawner, Teodoro, and Año have all categorically denied the existence of any unpublicized agreement with China over Second Thomas Shoal.

Needless to say, the authenticity of the recording has yet to be proven. It also remains unclear whether the person speaking on the recording is indeed Carlos, though his decision to go on personal leave offers strong suggestion of a connection. Assuming the recording is genuine, the most likely thing is that a casual discussion aimed at reducing tensions around Second Thomas Shoal has been misinterpreted by China, willfully or otherwise, as a binding agreement. This would not be surprising given the extent to which the two sides are talking past each other.

Whatever the reality, the Philippine government has rejected any suggestion that it is bound by the “new model” claimed by the Chinese government. In a statement on Tuesday, the Department of Foreign Affairs said that “only the President of the Republic of the Philippines can approve or authorize agreements entered into by the Philippine government on matters pertaining to the West Philippine Sea and the South China Sea.” “As far as the Philippine government is concerned, no such document, record or deal exists, as purported by the Chinese Embassy,” it added.

The Philippine Navy’s spokesperson for the South China Sea referred to China’s claim of an agreement as “zombie stories.” “The best approach is to put these stories where they rightfully belong – in the grave, never to be heard again,” he said.