West Philippine Sea

View from Manila: Propaganda masters? China drags Teodoro, Año in latest Ayungin narrative

Bea Cupin

This is AI generated summarization, which may have errors. For context, always refer to the full article.

View from Manila: Propaganda masters? China drags Teodoro, Año in latest Ayungin narrative

STAKING CLAIMS. A Philippine flag flutters from BRP Sierra Madre, a dilapidated Philippine Navy ship that has been aground since 1999 and became a Philippine military detachment on the disputed Ayungin Shoal, on March 29, 2014.

Erik De Castro/Reuters

Internal understanding? New model? Common understanding? Take your pick, dear reader.

MANILA, Philippines – The latest from China in its continuing narrative on the Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) is that no less than Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro Jr. and National Security Adviser Eduardo Año had entered into an “internal understanding” and a “new model” with Beijing to keep the peace in the shoal. But Teodoro and Año branded this as mere propaganda.

Over the weekend, anonymous Chinese or foreign officials spoke with Filipino journalists about Ayungin Shoal, located just over 120 nautical miles off the coast of Palawan province. It’s a hot spot between both countries because the Philippines’ BRP Sierra Madre, which was ran aground in 1999 within the vicinity, now serves as the country’s outpost in the area.

In an exclusive interview, a “foreign diplomat who is familiar with talks between [Manila and Beijing]” told the Inquirer that it was Teodoro and Año who supposedly approved an “internal understanding” with Beijing about a “new model” of avoiding conflict in the shoal.

In another exclusive interview, a “ranking Chinese official” made the same claim to the Manila Times – that an “internal understanding” and “new model” were reached by both sides, and that it had the supposed knowledge and approval of Teodoro and Año. 

Claims from the Chinese side about an “internal understanding” and “new model” over the West Philippine Sea issue are not new. But the nature of such “understanding” has evolved over the past few weeks and months.

Here’s a quick summary of what Chinese officials – named or anonymous – have made when it comes to the Ayungin Shoal. 

The promise to tow it away. China claims that back when BRP Sierra Madre was first ran aground, the Philippines promised to tow it away. Repeated requests from the media for China to identify who made the promise have gone unanswered. Officials during the Estrada administration (and their relatives) have either denied any such promise or have actively evaded the question. President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has said that if such a promise exists, he considers it as good as rescinded. 

“A gentleman’s agreement” made under former president Rodrigo Duterte. The former president himself seemed unsure, at first, if it was specifically about Ayungin Shoal but confirmed that the supposed agreement – also referred to as a “common understanding” – with Beijing was to maintain the “status quo” in the West Philippine Sea.

It was an anonymous Chinese official who first brought up the so-called gentlemen’s agreement in an interview with the Manila Times. In that same story, the said official bemoaned the Marcos administration’s supposed “inaction” toward Chinese proposals to “normalize” the situation in the South China Sea.

Manila’s Department of Foreign Affairs fumed over the disclosure of these discussions, saying that Beijing’s proposals would lead to “actions that would be deemed as acquiescence or recognition of China’s control and administration over the Ayungin Shoal as China’s territory.”

In other words, Beijing’s proposals were hard no-gos for Manila. 

Must Read

DFA fumes as China makes public ‘sensitive details,’ including Duterte-era deal

DFA fumes as China makes public ‘sensitive details,’ including Duterte-era deal

An “internal understanding” that was supposedly made in September 2023, according to the Inquirer story. China has noted in the past that in September 2023, Marcos’ special envoy to China for special concerns Ambassador Teddy Locsin Jr. visited Beijing for consultations. 

A supposed “new model” agreed upon by the Philippines and China in end-2023, according to the Manila Times. The anonymous Chinese official claimed this was brokered through the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) Western Command, whose area of operation includes the West Philippine Sea.  

Philippine officials, across the board, have denied entering into such agreements.

Over the weekend, Teodoro said the defense department has not cut any deal with Chinese officials since the start of the Marcos administration in June 2022 (he only came in after the first year of the administration, when the appointment ban on losing 2022 candidates expired). 

‘Propaganda masters’

“As a matter of fact, the Department of National Defense has not had any contact with any Chinese government officials since last year. The narrative that unnamed or unidentified Chinese officials are propagating is another crude attempt to advance a falsehood,” said Teodoro.

He added: “This is all a part of the Chinese propaganda effort to steer the Filipino people’s attention away from the real issue and cause of the tensions in the West Philippine Sea, which is China’s obstinate refusal to adhere to UNCLOS, which they are a signatory to.”

In a separate statement, National Security spokesperson Jonathan Malaya said “propaganda masters are clearly working overtime in Beijing to sow discord and division in our country” to push its claim that the Philippines is the troublemaker and promise-breaker. 

“The Chinese Embassy is reminded that any understanding without the authorization of the President has no force and effect. And therefore, the Philippines never broke any agreement because there was none to begin with,” he added.

Malaya also warned “the public, most especially the media” over China’s “trap.” “These are the same people who said that the entire South China Sea is theirs, who militarized artificial islands, who created military bases in our EEZ, who claim that the videos of blocking, dangerous manuevers, and water cannons are all fabricated by the media in cahoots with the PH government.”

To be sure, Manila and Beijing’s row in the West Philippine Sea is as much about narratives and stories as it is about naval and maritime presence. 

Retired Chinese military senior colonel Zhou Bo, now a fellow at the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University, told the South China Morning Post that China’s use of water cannons in Ayungin Shoal or Scarborough Shoal were “deterrence, not a use of force.”

To a question about possible US involvement in the South China Sea issue, Zhou also said: “I hope the Philippines would not be stupid to become more adventurous. They should know they don’t stand a chance vis-à-vis China. The strength of the Chinese side is way beyond that of the Philippines. Even if this situation may continue for a while, eventually the Philippine government will have to back down.” 

Thus far, both in public and private, Marcos’ instructions when it comes to the Sierra Madre is clear: it should always be manned, and it should never be abandoned.

That’s easier said than done. 

While the AFP has, through the years, found ways to improve the living conditions of the soldiers who are stationed there for weeks and months at a time. Soldiers have access to the internet, so they’re able to check in on relatives.

Tweaks and upgrades have also been made through the years to make sure that they’re as comfortable as can be aboard a rusting war ship and that the Sierra Madre isn’t blown away should a strong typhoon hit the area. 

They’ve another debacle to contend with, as temperatures hit record highs on land: the unbearable heat of the open seas. But we’re told that the team on the Sierra Madre has adequate supplies, especially drinking water. 

Balikatan continues

We’re also entering week two of Balikatan 2024. 

The Multilateral Maritime Exercise in the West Philippine Sea with the Philippines, US, and France just concluded, which means the Vendémiaire and BRP Ramon Alcaraz should be separating from the other two Navy ships to conduct a bilateral sail, also in the West Philippine Sea. 

US and Philippine vessels will sail back to land for air assault, beach landing, and live fire demonstrations in Palawan. The following week, Balikatan wraps up with two major exercises in Laoag City, capital of Ilocos Norte, which is President Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s home province: a counter-landing and ship-sinking exercise. 

Must Read

Much ado over nothing? Balikatan sinking of China-made ship ‘coincidental,’ says Navy

Much ado over nothing? Balikatan sinking of China-made ship ‘coincidental,’ says Navy

It’s during the latter two weeks of Balikatan that the Philippines and US will be flexing their military assets, and, more importantly, their capability to work together.   

A Chinese Navy ship was spotted in the vicinity of four navy ships that participated in the Balikatan exercises. – Rappler.com

1 comment

Sort by
  1. ET

    As usual, the Chinese propagandists strike again. How about their local cohorts? Are they dragging Teodoro and Año, too?

Summarize this article with AI

How does this make you feel?

Download the Rappler App!
Avatar photo


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.