West Philippine Sea

DFA chief: Where’s China’s proof of West Philippine Sea agreements? 

Bea Cupin

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DFA chief: Where’s China’s proof of West Philippine Sea agreements? 

DFA CHIEF. Foreign Secretary Enrique Manalo attends the Senate hearing on the proposed 2024 budget of the DFA and its attached agencies on September 26, 2023.

Angie de Silva/Rappler

'Maybe China thinks it's an agreement, but it's not an agreement for us. You normally need two parties to implement an agreement.'

China can claim the existence of bilateral agreements as much as it wants but without proof and without consent from the Philippines, that’s all they are – claims.

“[China] says there are agreements. But where? Show us. I don’t recall ever having discussed proposals to have such agreements,” said Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo on Wednesday, May 22, during a lunch engagement with reporters covering the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

Manalo was referring to several agreements that China claims the Philippines agreed to. Beijing also claims that the agreements are binding.

From decades ago, there’s a supposed promise from Manila to tow the rusting BRP Sierra Madre away from Ayungin Shoal, a feature located just over 100 nautical miles away from mainland Palawan. The Philippines has denied such an agreement. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has said that if the agreement exists, he rescinds it. From the Duterte era, China claims that a “gentleman’s agreement” to keep the status quo in the South China Sea – which included not bringing supplies to the rusting ship – was in place.

Then under the current Marcos administration, China claims another agreement – a so-called “new model” (that, at least according to a transcript of a conversation leaked by the Chinese embassy in Manila, meant that the Philippines agrees to terms that seem to favor China’s stakes over the shoal).

Marcos-era officials – from Manalo to chiefs of the security and defense sectors – have denied knowing of the so-called “gentleman’s agreement” and making any new agreements with Beijing. China, through statements from its embassy here and its foreign ministry in Beijing, insists these agreements are valid.

That’s where the Philippines and Beijing… well, disagree.

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Agreements and disagreements on the West Philippine Sea, explained 

Agreements and disagreements on the West Philippine Sea, explained 

“It’s not just any agreement. You should have a record of the agreement. And therefore, normally, the common ways to have in writing and to ensure that both sides agree, you sign it. And that’s a record, not an agreement. So if there’s a problem or anything happens, you have something to look back to. You can say ‘you violated the agreement or you did not live up [to it],’ at least you have a basis,” said Manalo.

He added: “China can assert [that] they’re valid, but if we don’t think they’re valid, then it’s not a bilateral agreement. Maybe China thinks it’s an agreement, but it’s not an agreement for us. You normally need two parties to implement an agreement. Why they’re saying it, I don’t know. Maybe it’s to defend what they’re doing. But where’s the proof that we agreed? If there was something in writing, as I said, okay, they might have a case. But there’s none. And they only give their side anyway. So I think we have to take a look at it that way.”

Disagreement over supposed agreements has been an aspect of tensions between the Philippines and China over how to manage the situation in the West Philippine Sea or part of the South China Sea that includes Manila’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Therein lies the most basic disagreement: The Philippines, backed by international law including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the 2016 arbitral ruling, considers the 200 nautical miles from its coast its EEZ. In those waters, the Philippines exercises sovereign rights or the ability to “explore, exploit, conserve and manage the living resources” in the area. China, which has rejected the 2016 arbitral ruling, claims a huge chunk of the South China Sea as its own, including the West Philippine Sea.

Under Marcos, the Philippines has become more assertive in enforcing its sovereign rights and making its sovereignty claims in the West Philippine Sea. China has responded by being more aggressive at sea, routinely using water cannons and dangerous maneuvers to stop Philippine missions to features like Ayungin Shoal and Panatag Shoal.

Both chambers of Philippines Congress have launched investigations into the supposed agreements – at the House, the spotlight is on the so-called “gentleman’s agreement,” while in the Senate, legislators are probing the Chinese embassy’s wiretapping of a conversation between then-Western Command chief Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos and China’s defense attaché in Manila.

China, still without bringing out proof, insisted on Wednesday, May 22, that “no one can deny [the] existence] of agreements on the West Philippine Sea. Whether it’s the ‘gentlemen’s agreement,’ or the internal understandings, or the ‘new model’ reached between China and the Philippines on properly managing the situation in the South China Sea, they all have clear timelines and are supported by solid evidence. No one can deny their existence,” said foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin in a press conference.

He also claimed that Carlos’ removal as Wescom chief “is exact evidence that China and the Philippines did reach agreement.”

Carlos confirmed before a Senate panel that “Colonel Li,” Beijing’s military attaché in Manila, called him up in January 2024. But the Navy general denied making agreements with China. And as Manalo pointed out, where’s the written and signed document? – 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.