China reveals “unwritten agreement” made with former Filipino president Duterte

According to media reports on May 4, the Chinese Embassy in Manila maintained there was an “unwritten agreement” with the Philippines over access to the South China Sea islands. Reportedly, this “temporary special arrangement” was agreed to during a visit to Beijing by former Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, and permitted small scale fishing around the islands but would limit access by military, coast guard and other official planes and ships to the 12 nautical mile limit of territorial waters. 

In the media reports, Collin Koh, senior fellow, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore, said that after the Beijing trip, Duterte had signaled to such an agreement, boasting that beside securing Chinese investment and trade pledges, he also secured the rights of Filipino fishermen to access to Scarborough Shoal. However, according to Koh, China did not have any official document and could only rely on Duterte’s verbal claim.

Duterte said he agreed to maintain the status quo with Xi Jinping, China’s supreme leader, to avoid war, including not to go for oil exploration and extraction, and to limit repair to the BRP Sierra Madre. Duterte confirmed there was no written agreement. This acknowledgement has fueled outrage in the Philippines, with calls emerging for him to be charged for treason.

Officials under the current administration of president Ferdinand Marcos Jr said they were not aware of any such agreement. They would also not get rid of the BRP Sierra Madre, a moored decrepit military ship serving as an outpost at the Second Thomas Shoal since 1999, in the wake of China’s claims that Philippine officials have pledged to tow away. 

Antonio Carpio, a former associate justice of the Supreme Court, told reporters that Duterte’s status quo deal has in effect ceded control of Second Thomas Shoal to China. He backed a legislative inquiry suggested by lawmakers to probe the alleged deal, which he said was against the national interest. Senator Risa Hontiveros, who submitted a resolution seeking a probe, said the agreement was treasonous.

China alleged that the Philippines had abided by this agreement for the past seven years but has now gone against it for its own political agenda. The Chinese Embassy in Manila said this was the reason for the “ceaseless disputes at sea between China and the Philippines over the past year and more”.

China is claiming almost the whole of the South China Sea, a vital trade waterway and is rich in natural resources. The Philippines contends that the Second Thomas Shoal lies within its exclusive economic zone — which extends 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from its coast — and has pledged that it will never abandon the area.

China has long slammed the Philippines for “violating its commitments” and “acting illegally” in the South China Sea. And the recent revelations about Duterte’s supposed agreement with Beijing could have been meant to unnerve the current Marcos administration. 

Marcos has condemned Duterte’s “unwritten agreement”, saying: “I am horrified by the idea that we have compromised into a secret agreement the territory, the sovereignty, and the sovereign rights of the Filipinos.” National Security Adviser Eduardo Año said any secret deal between China and the prior administration would violate the Philippines’ national interest and is no longer valid.

Photo credit: iStock/ Shutter2U

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