West Philippine Sea

Agreements and disagreements on the West Philippine Sea, explained 

Bea Cupin

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Agreements and disagreements on the West Philippine Sea, explained 

WEST PHILIPPINE SEA. Philippine vessels the BRP Datu Bankaw and BRP Bagacay distribute fuel, water, and food to fisherfolk in the vicinity of Panatag Shoal off the coast of Zambales.


We trace deals and agreements on the West Philippine Sea, beginning 2012

From a promise to ride a jetski to the West Philippine Sea that turned into policies that bended to Beijing’s will, then a vow to be a “friend to all” that turned into a declaration that “Filipinos do not yield,” the Philippines has seen dramatic shifts in its policy and approach to handling our superpower neighbor China. 

Manila’s new-found vigor in the West Philippine Sea, at least initially, seemed to perplex Beijing. Former president Rodrigo Duterte, after all, promised a “pivot” to China. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. now promises to work with China when interests align, but to “push back…[if] jurisdiction in the West Philippine Sea are questioned or ignored.” 

Beijing’s own push back – amid the Philippine government’s “transparency initiative” in the West Philippine Sea – has mostly come in the form of belated “revelations,” piecemeal claims of agreements, and even a threat to release a supposed audio recording of a phone call between a Chinese diplomat and a Philippine general. 

We trace the deals and agreements on the West Philippine Sea, beginning 2012, when the Philippines and China’ tense stand-off in Scarborough or Panatag Shoal led to the eventual filing of a pleading with a United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal. 

That pleading would result in the 2016 Arbitral Award, made public in the first weeks of the Duterte administration. 

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Scarborough standoff and (alleged) one-way compliance 

On April 8, 2012, a Philippine Navy (PN) surveillance plane monitored Chinese vessels fishing inside the lagoon of Scaborough Shoal or Panatag Shoal, an atoll located some 120 nautical miles off the coast of mainland Zambales. 

The Philippines then sent a warship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, to conduct more surveillance on the Chinese ships. On April 10, according to a Philippine Daily Inquirer report, soldiers from the Gregorio del Pilar boarded and inspected the vessels. “Large amounts of illegally collected corals, giant clams, and live sharks were found inside the compartments of the first fishing vessel that was boarded by the PN team,” said the Department of Foreign Affairs then. 

Two Chinese “maritime surveillance ships” then entered the lagoon, preventing Philippine forces from arresting the fishermen, and a standoff commenced. The United States, a treaty ally of the Philippines, brokered an agreement to pull out government vessels from the shoal – which Manila said Beijing did not follow. China denies a deal was ever made.

Beijing has occupied and maintained practical control of the shoal and its lagoon since then. According to the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), six to eight Chinese vessels stay in and around  the shoal at all times. Deployment increased dramatically in mid-May 2024 during a civilian-led mission to the vicinity of the shoal. 

China claims a huge part of the South China Sea as its own. It’s a claim that overlaps with several countries in the region, including the Philippines. 

‘Status quo’ among gentlemen 

Mere weeks into Rodrigo Duterte’s administration in July 2016, the Arbitral Tribunal announced its ruling, which deemed China’s broad claim on the South China Sea invalid, and affirmed the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. 

But under Duterte – the same president who promised to plant the Philippine flag on features in the West Philippine Sea via jetski – the Philippines did not make a deal over what would have been a game-changing victory. 

Duterte’s main, sometimes solitary, goal in the West Philippine Seam was to secure the safety of civilians – the inhabitants of Pagasa (Thitu) Island, and fisherfolk who rely on features like Scaborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc) for their livelihoods. 

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Duterte’s discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping focused on keeping the status quo in the West Philippine Sea. This has meant that the Philippines could and would not build new things on features it already occupies, nor would it seek out new features to occupy. An exemption was Pagasa Island, located beyond the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, where a civilian population resides. 

In turn, China reportedly agreed not to build in Scarborough Shoal while also not impeding resupply missions to Ayungin Shoal – as long as construction materials were not in the mix. 

China uses the term “gentleman’s agreement” to refer to their Duterte-era deals with the Philippines. The term is usually used with respect to Ayungin Shoal. 

The Marcos administration denies any knowledge of the agreement, although China insists its officials were briefed about it.   

The supposed “gentleman’s agreement” is the subject of an inquiry at the House of Representatives, a chamber dominated by a supermajority allied with the Marcos administration. 

New model? No deal. 

Even before agreement under Duterte was made, Beijing had long bemoaned Manila’s alleged unfulfilled promise to tow away the BRP Sierra Madre from Ayungin Shoal. The warship was purposefully run aground on the shoal in 1999, also in response to China’s expansion in Mischief Reef, a feature close to mainland Palawan.

Beijing brought up the so-called promise to tow the ship again in August 2023. Marcos denied the existence of an agreement, adding that “if there does exist such an agreement, I rescind that agreement as of now.”

After going on about the “gentleman’s agreement” and how the Philippines supposedly reneged on it, the Chinese embassy in Manila introduced a new term: a “new model,” also concerning Ayungin Shoal, allegedly agreed upon under the Marcos administration.

The government’s top officials – from Marcos to Defense Secretary Gibo Teodoro to National Security Adviser Eduardo Año – denied making any such deal. China still insists it was made and agreed on by top security and defense officials, even threatening the release of a supposed recording of a phone call with former Western Command chief Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos where he allegedly confirmed the deal and his boss’ approval. 

Teodoro and Año have doubted the authenticity of the supposed recording, even as they’ve pointed out that recording a phone call without the consent of all parties is against Philippine law. The two top defense and security officials also floated the possibility of expelling Chinese diplomats involved in the alleged recording. 

The alleged wiretapping is now the subject of a Senate investigation. Carlos, now no longer Wescom chief, has been invited to the probe. Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian has also been invited, although he cannot be compelled to attend the Congressional probe. – Rappler.com 

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.