THE Philippine government, through its National Security Council (NSC) on Saturday, rejected China’s claim of a supposed “new model” to deescalate tension in the West Philippine Sea based on its agreement with the previous administration.

Security Adviser Eduardo Año and National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea spokesman Jonathan Malaya insisted that any “agreement” reached between China and the Philippines in the previous administration, referring to then president Rodrigo Duterte, if it existed, has been rescinded and was not binding under the administration of his successor, Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

“The President has been very clear: This administration is not aware of any secret or gentleman’s agreement, and if there was such done under a previous administration, the same has been rescinded,” Año said in a statement

Security Adviser Eduardo Año. PHOTO BY J. GERARD SEGUIA


He said that if any such agreement was reached, “it is the responsibility of those responsible for it” to explain it to the Filipino people but that the current administration cannot be bound by it.

“We call on all Filipinos to stand their ground and push back against these maligned and corrosive narratives that seek to undermine the national interest,” the NSC chief said.

‘Gentleman’s agreement’

The statement comes after the Chinese Embassy in Manila said it “repeatedly” informed the current administration about the so-called gentleman’s agreement, in contrast to what President Marcos said was a “secret deal” that he did not know anything about.

“Since the current Philippine administration took office, the Chinese side has repeatedly briefed this administration on matters related to the Gentleman’s Agreement, made representations regarding the Ren’ai Jiao (Ayungin Shoal) issue, and remained committed to exploring ways of managing the differences through dialogue and consultation with the Philippine side,” the Chinese Embassy said in a statement Thursday.

“A new model for management of the Ren’ai Jiao (Ayungin Shoal) situation was also agreed upon by both sides early this year after rounds of serious communications with the Philippine military,” China’s embassy in Manila said.

“Regrettably, only one round of resupply mission was carried out within the realm of these understandings and arrangements before they were unilaterally abandoned by the Philippine side for no good reason,” it added.

‘New invention’

But Malaya said that China’s narrative of a supposed “new model” in managing the West Philippine Sea situation was a distraction and was meant to divide the Filipino people.

“This new model is nothing more than a new invention. As the President clearly stated, there is no agreement whatsoever about Ayungin Shoal, and we shall continue doing all activities within the bounds of international law and we shall prove no interference in our lawful actions,” Malaya said during Saturday’s forum in Quezon City.

“The propaganda masters at the Chinese Embassy are clearly working overtime to sow discord and division in our country for one purpose alone: to show that the Philippines is the one sowing tensions and conflict in the West Philippine Sea,” he added.

Malaya, NSC assistant director general, reminded the Chinese Embassy in Manila that “any understanding, without the authorization of the President, has no force and effect.”

“Therefore, the Philippines never broke any agreement because there was none to begin with. What is there to break if there was no agreement whatsoever, right?” Malaya said.

The NSC official also said that Marcos and his administration “can never agree to any understanding that violates our understanding of our territory and international law.”

“Whatever the Chinese Embassy is saying, let’s take it with a grain of salt. These are the same people who said that the entire South China Sea is theirs,” he added.

Marcos last week questioned his predecessor Duterte about what he compromised in the “secret agreement” he made with China.

The President said he had three questions regarding the supposed agreement: Is there such an agreement? What was contained in it? Why was it made secret?

Former Palace spokesman Harry Roque Jr. last month bared the existence of the agreement, but it was denied by Salvador Panelo, the chief presidential legal counsel of the previous administration.

Duterte, for his part, said he conceded nothing to China during his administration, but agreed to a “status quo” in which neither the Philippines nor China would make any move to disrupt the South China Sea, including the transport of construction materials to the grounded BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal.

“[It is] as is where is. You cannot bring in materials to repair and improve. No agreement, as is where is,” Duterte said last week.

In 2016, an international court awarded an arbitral ruling to the Philippines and invalidated China’s historic claim over most parts of the South China Sea.

Beijing snubbed the arbitration court’s decision to invalidate its nine-dash line map and insisted that the ruling was “null and void.”

While former president Duterte played down the 2016 ruling, his predecessor has been more active in asserting the Philippines’ right over its exclusive economic zone through public statements and by forging closer military alliances with other nations that seek to uphold the rule of law in the strategic waterway.

Last week, Marcos attended the first summit involving the Philippines, Japan and the United States, where they vowed to enhance maritime and economic cooperation.

Earlier this month, the three countries and Australia held quadrilateral exercises in the West Philippine Sea despite China’s warnings and criticisms that such activities might fuel tensions in the region.

‘War is not on the table’

The Philippines and the US will also be holding the annual Balikatan with the participation of various government agencies and the armed forces of more nations.

But Malaya denied that the upcoming exercises, which will run from April 22 to May 10, were in preparation for war.

He said that the Balikatan was focused on strengthening the Philippines’ defense capacity and capability, as well as the interoperability and cooperation of Filipino and American forces.

“War is not on the table — let me just make that very clear. War is not one of the instruments of national policy of the Philippines… just because we have Balikatan doesn’t mean we’re going to go to war. The only way to preserve peace is to have a strong deterrence capability,” Malaya said.

“We are exhausting all diplomatic options to resolve this issue. We wish a constructive dialogue with the People’s Republic of China. But defending, improving our defenses, and improving the capacity of our forces through exercises and joint patrols and what not ever does not mean that we are going to war,” he added.

Meanwhile, Malaya said the Philippines and Japan are expected to sign the Reciprocal Access Agreement (RAA) before the end of 2024.

“All I can say right now are the countries that have expressed interest to us publicly, like for example Japan — the arrangement with Japan, the RAA, our target is before the end of the year, it will be signed,” Malaya said.

“And there are more countries that have expressed interest. That’s why I’m not surprised, some are saying why is the President suddenly in the list of most influential individuals in the world according to Time Magazine — because the respect for the Philippines has increased. And I agree with the assessment of Time Magazine that President Bongbong Marcos has brought the Philippines back to the world stage,” he added.

The RAA — which is quite similar to the US’ Visiting Forces Agreement — will serve as the guidelines for the entry and operation of Filipino troops in Japanese territory and vessels, and vice versa.

It will be Japan’s first RAA with a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and the third following pacts with Australia and Britain that took effect earlier this year.

Japan and the Philippines have been seeking to boost trilateral defense cooperation with the US in response to China’s construction of artificial islands with military infrastructure in nearby waters and frequent intrusions into the territorial seas of others.

Tokyo has dismissed Beijing’s claim over the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, while Manila has long been at odds with the communist country over its claims of sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea.