China publicises what it says is a deal with the Philippines to access South China Sea islands

China publicises what it says is a deal with the Philippines to access South China Sea islands
  • PublishedMay 4, 2024

For the first time, China has publicised what it claims is an unwritten agreement with the Philippines over access to South China Sea islands.

The move threatens to further raise tensions in the disputed waterway, through which much of the world’s trade passes and which China claims virtually in its entirety.

A statement from the Chinese Embassy in Manila said the “temporary special arrangement” agreed to during a visit to Beijing by former president Rodrigo Duterte allowed small scale fishing around the islands but restricted access by military, coast guard and other official planes and ships to the 12 nautical mile — 22 kilometre — limit of territorial waters.

In a statement China said the Philippines respected the agreement over the past seven years but has since reneged on it to “fulfil its own political agenda,” forcing it to take action.

“This is the basic reason for the ceaseless disputes at sea between China and the Philippines over the past year and more,” said the statement posted to the embassy’s website Thursday local time, referring to the actions of the Philippines.

A green boat is hit with a water cannon being shot by a larger white boat in open sea
Philippine resupply vessels have been hit by Chinese coastguard water cannons on several occasions in recent months.(AP Photo: Aaron Favila, File)

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Mr Duterte have denied forging any agreements that would have supposedly surrendered Philippine sovereignty or sovereign rights to China. Any such action, if proven, would be an impeachable offence under the country’s 1987 Constitution.

However, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies based in Nanyang Technological University, Collin Koh, said after his visit to Beijing, Rodrigo Duterte hinted at such an agreement without offering details.

“He boasted then that he not only got Chinese investment and trade pledges, but also that he secured Philippine fishermen access to Scarborough Shoal,” Mr Koh said, referring to one of the maritime features in dispute.

The expert on naval affairs in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly South-East Asia, said China’s statement is noteworthy because it showed that “Beijing has no official document to prove its case and thus could only rely mainly on Duterte’s verbal claim.”

The Philippine president, who took office in 2022, told reporters last month that China has insisted that there was such a secret agreement but said he was not aware of any.

“The Chinese are insisting that there is a secret agreement and, perhaps, there is, and, I said I didn’t, I don’t know anything about the secret agreement,” Ferdinand Marcos Jr said, who has drawn the Philippines closer to its treaty partner the US.

“Should there be such a secret agreement, I am now rescinding it.”

Mr Duterte, nurtured cosy relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping during his six-year presidency while openly being hostile to the United States for its strong criticism of his deadly campaign against illegal drugs.

While he took an almost virulently anti-American stance during his 2016 visit to Washington’s chief rival, he has said he also did not enter into any agreement with Beijing that would have compromised Philippine territory.

He acknowledged, however, that he and Xi agreed to maintain “the status quo” in the disputed waters to avoid war.

Mr Duterte gestures during a meeting on emerging infectious diseases in Manila, September 15, 2021.
Former Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has denied striking a deal with China over access to the South China Sea.(Reuters: Eloisa Lopez)

“Aside from the fact of having a handshake with President Xi Jinping, the only thing I remember was that status quo, that’s the word. There would be no contact, no movement, no armed patrols there, as is where is, so there won’t be any confrontation,” Mr Duterte said.

Asked if he agreed that the Philippines would not bring construction materials to strengthen a Philippine military ship outpost at the Second Thomas Shoal, he said that was part of maintaining the status quo but added there was no written agreement.

“That’s what I remember. If it were a gentleman’s agreement, it would always have been an agreement to keep the peace in the South China Sea,” he said.

House Speaker Ferdinand Martin Romualdez, Ferdinand Marcos’s cousin and political ally, has ordered an investigation into what some are calling a “gentleman’s agreement.”

China has also claimed that Philippine officials have promised to tow away the navy ship that was deliberately grounded in the shallows of the Second Thomas Shoal in 1999 to serve as Manila’s territorial outpost.

Philippine officials under Marcos say they were not aware of any such agreement and would not remove the now dilapidated and rust-encrusted warship manned by a small contingent of Filipino sailors and marines.

China has long accused Manila of “violating its commitments” and “acting illegally” in the South China Sea, without being explicit.

Apart from China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims in the sea that is rich in fishing stocks, gas and oil. Beijing has refused to recognise a 2016 international arbitration ruling by a UN-affiliated court in the Hague that invalidated its expansive claims on historical grounds.

Skirmishes between Beijing and Manila have flared since last year, with massive Chinese coast guard cutters firing high-pressure water cannons at Philippine patrol vessels, most recently off Scarborough Shoal late last month, damaging both. They have also accused each other of dangerous maneuvering, leading to minor scrapes.

The US lays no claims to the South China Sea, but has deployed Navy ships and fighter jets in what it calls freedom of navigation operations that have challenged China’s claims.

The US has warned repeatedly that it’s obligated to defend the Philippines — its oldest treaty ally in Asia — if Filipino forces, ships or aircraft come under an armed attack, including in the South China Sea.

Earlier this week in Hawaii,  there was the second-ever joint meeting of defence chiefs from the US, Philippines, Japan and Australia — Richard Marles travelled from Canberra — amid concerns about China’s operations in the South China Sea.

“The meetings that we have held represent a very significant message to the region and to the world about four democracies which are committed to the global rules-based order,” Mr Marles said.


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