West Philippine Sea

View from Manila: PH’s recent narratives on West Philippine Sea testing gov’t integrity

Bea Cupin

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

View from Manila: PH’s recent narratives on West Philippine Sea testing gov’t integrity

WATER CANNONS IN AYUNGIN. Two China Coast Guard ships train their water cannons onto the Unaizah May 4 (between the two Chinese ships), a wooden boat used to bring supplies to the BRP Sierra Madre. Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos was on board the Unaizah May during this mission.

Screenshot from PCG video

The Philippine government's 'transparency initiative' now takes on a new meaning following China’s claims of an agreement on Ayungin Shoal

MANILA, Philippines – When talking about the West Philippine Sea, narratives are important. 

Overlapping and diverging narratives took a scandalous turn last week, with Beijing claiming possession and threatening the release of a recorded phone call that, it said, proves that Western Command Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos had agreed to their terms in resupply missions to Ayungin Shoal in the West Philippine Sea. 

China called it a “new model.” Manila dismissed it as b__s – at least until Beijing floated the threat of the recording, then quickly released it anyway through select Philippine newspapers. 

First, a quick review of narratives: 

The Philippine narrative, especially according to Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) spokesperson Commodore Jay Tarriela, is this: it’s a David and Goliath fight in the West Philippine Sea. 

Beijing’s maritime fleet may be mightier, but ours is a fight rooted on international law and the rules-based order, Philippine officials will be quick to remind you. The West Philippine Sea, parts of the South China Sea where the Philippines should be enjoying sovereign rights (its exclusive economic zone) and where the Philippines has sovereignty claims, is ours. Atin Ito. 

If China turned even more aggressive in those waters, it’s because the Asian giant has no choice but to up its Goliath-ness, Tarriela would argue.  

China’s narrative is this: that a huge part of the South China Sea is theirs, as defined by its 9-dash turned 10-dash line – never mind that a 2016 Arbitral Award deemed it invalid. Since it’s theirs, Beijing argues, actions in those waters are valid – including the use of strong water cannons against Philippine ships, in areas within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone. 

Beijing’s top envoy in Manila, Huang Xilian, has described the Philippines and China as “neighbors across a narrow strip of water” – a reference to their 10-dash line. To them, it’s Manila that’s been unreasonable, allegedly reneging on deals, including the “gentleman’s agreement” made under former president Rodrigo Duterte.  

The legendary ‘new model’

The term “new model” made its debut on April 12, via a statement from the Chinese embassy in Manila. A week later, on April 18, the embassy said it was a result of “rounds of serious communications with the Philippine military.” 

Journalists asked: who in the military did they speak to? 

An answer came a week later, on May 4, when the embassy first mentioned the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Western Command (Wescom), which has jurisdiction over the West Philippine Sea facing the province of Palawan. 

Then came the alleged recorded call. 

In it, a man whom The Manila Times and the Manila Bulletin, quoting the embassy source, identified as Vice Admiral Carlos, had claimed that top security officials – Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr, National Security Advisory Eduardo Año, and AFP chief General Romeo Brawner Jr. – knew of the new arrangement. 

What’s the Philippine narrative here? 

  • On May 5, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said it “is not aware” of a “new model” and that both Teodoro and Año have denied the Chinese embassy’s claims.
  • On May 7, the DFA said that only President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. could okay any agreement on the West Philippine Sea and South China Sea, and that “no Cabinet-level official of the Marcos administration has agreed to any Chinese proposal” on Ayungin.
  • On May 8, speaking to reporters, Teodoro said he doubted the “authenticity” of the recording, even as he called on the DFA to investigate the Chinese embassy’s claim, find out who’s behind it, and kick that person out – assuming the recording was authentic. 
  • On May 10, Año released a statement “joining” Teodoro in urging the DFA to “take appropriate actions” against Chinese diplomats who claimed to possess a recording of the supposed phone call. Año went a step further, saying those behind “malign influence and interference operations” from the embassy should be booted out of the country. 

Is the recording authentic? Was it a deep fake? Was there an informal deal struck between China and Wescom? For how long has Beijing or the Chinese embassy had a direct line to Wescom, if it ever had one? Does Beijing have direct lines to other military leaders and top Philippine officials?

What does Beijing stand to gain in seemingly allowing bilateral relations to implode through a phone recording’s release or the threat of its release? 

Not even the Times nor Bulletin could confirm if it was indeed Carlos on the other line. He has also conveniently gone on a “personal leave.” The AFP has not said when he’ll be returning. 

These questions are important to ask, even as they do not change the facts out at sea: that China has responded with even more aggressive actions in the West Philippine Sea, whether the mission be a military resupply to Ayungin Shoal or a humanitarian mission for fisherfolk in Panatag Shoal. 

It’s important because it tests the integrity of a government that has, so far, chosen to put a spotlight on actions in the South China Sea that were once hush-hush and which other neighboring nations chose to speak about only behind closed doors. 

Transparency on this side, too 

The Western Command has always been a crucial post, but especially so under the Marcos administration and its “transparency initiative” in the West Philippine Sea. 

First introduced when Año took over as the country’s top security adviser, the initiative’s goal is to show to Filipinos and to the world how China acts in the West Philippine Sea. Water cannon incidents have almost become an expected hazard when venturing out into flashpoints in the West Philippine Sea – Ayungin Shoal and Panatag Shoal.  

Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo, in an interview on World View with Marites Vitug, said transparency has made their work a little easier.

“Generally, we’ve been satisfied with this, the way it’s gone, and because it’s really brought to the attention of the rest of the world what’s going on, not only what’s going on but what’s happening,” he said. 

In Manila, every dangerous resupply or humanitarian mission to Ayungin or Panatag Shoal makes headlines. Videos and images spark indignation. China’s harassment has even made it to pop culture, with popular Filipino entertainer Vice Ganda referencing West Philippine Sea issues in a video set to the nationalistic song, “Piliin Mo Ang Pilipinas.” 

In contrast, there’s no talk of Chinese actions in Beijing – only that the China Coast Guard or its navy managed to drive away Philippine ships (even if they have not). News in the mainland, of course, is only what its government wants out. 

But the supposed “new model” phone recording is a different matter. It’s making the rounds in China, with the prevailing narrative being that Manila was caught in a gotcha moment.

The DFA, on May 13, said it will “look into any reports of illegal and unlawful activities by diplomatic officials, and undertake necessary action in line with existing laws and regulations.” 

After all, foreign diplomats are meant to follow local laws in their host country, not “interfere in the internal affairs of that State,” and should only be transacting with the DFA (or other departments, if an agreement is made). Recording phone conversations without the explicit permission of all parties involved is against Philippine law. 

Pundits and interlocutors have pointed to everything – from paranoia, to desperation, to indignation, to exasperation – in trying to explain the Chinese embassy’s latest claim.

But in countering China’s allegations, Philippine officials have also been acting like pundits themselves – seemingly throwing things against the wall and seeing what would stick in a public arena that trusts them. So far. – Rappler.com 

Add a comment

Sort by

There are no comments yet. Add your comment to start the conversation.

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.