'Gentleman's agreement' used as smoke screen to deflect illegal activities by China in West Philippine Sea, says defense chief

BY

Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. accused China of using the supposed "gentleman's agreement" between former president Rodrigo Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping as a smoke screen to deflect their illegal activities in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

Teodoro, in a statement on Tuesday, April 2, cautioned Filipinos from being swayed by this deflection.

"While we realize that accountability is important in the issue on whether or not a so-called 'gentleman's agreement' was forged with China regarding the BRP Sierra Madre and Ayungin Shoal, we Filipinos must not lose sight of the fact that the main threat to our rights in the WPS is the Chinese government's illegal activities," he said.

Earlier, former presidential spokesperson Harry Roque claimed that Duterte and President Xi had a gentleman's agreement to maintain the status quo in the South China Sea.

It included the deal that China would not build new structures in the South China Sea, and it would allow the delivery of food supplies for troops stationed at BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal but not construction materials to fix the dilapidated Philippine Navy warship.

BRP Sierra Madre was deliberately ran aground off Ayungin Shoal to serve as a military outpost and symbolize the Philippines' sovereignty over the area.

However, Roque had clarified that the agreement did not cover the removal of the BRP Sierra Madre from the shoal.

China has repeatedly referred to an agreement with a former Philippine president regarding the towing of BRP Sierra Madre, and recently, they have been using this argument to put the blame on the Philippines over the increasing tension in the WPS.

The tension reached a point that China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels resorted to using water cannon to prevent Philippine supply boats from delivering food to Filipino troops manning the BRP Sierra Madre as they claimed that construction materials were being sneaked into the beached warship. Last month, seven Filipino military personnel were injured due to the firing of water cannon by CCG vessels.

"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 in our EEZ [exclusive economic zone]," Teodoro said.

Meanwhile, National Security Council (NSC) Asst. Director General and National Task Force for West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) spokesperson Jonathan Malaya said that the administration of President Marcos Jr. is not bound to any gentleman's agreement with China on the South China Sea.

"Since the Marcos administration is not bound by this [agreement], the Marcos administration has a different tact," he said.

"We think that this gentleman's agreement need not be resurrected since we intend to maintain our presence in Ayungin Shoal. Remember that BRP Sierra Madre is in there, we are in occupation of Ayungin Shoal, and we will not do anything to jeopardize that," he added.

Relatedly, Marcos has issued Executive Order No. 57 which aims to beef up the country's maritime security amid China's aggression in WPS.

EO 57 renamed and reorganized the National Coast Watch Council (NCWC) to the National Maritime Council (NMC), which is tasked to formulate policies and strategies to ensure a unified, coordinated, and effective governance framework for the country’s maritime security and domain awareness, among other powers and functions.

"The President created the National Maritime Council through EO 57 for the purpose of increasing our country's maritime security and maritime domain awareness. We tend to focus on the West Philippine Sea but there are also challenges in other parts of the country such as in Benham Rise in the eastern seaboard, the northern seaboard near Batanes, and the southern side facing Indonesia and Malaysia. All of these areas require maritime domain awareness and we need to strengthen our maritime security," Malaya explained.

Malaya said that the national government will also implement a reasonable "response and countermeasure package" in relation to the tension in the WPS, as mentioned by Marcos.

"It is not in the interest of China, the United States or any of our allies and partners for war to happen. So given that, we will find diplomatic solutions to address this problem as part of the package of countermeasures and responses that the President spoke about," he noted.