EDITORIAL - ‘Horrifying’ gentleman’s agreement

The Philippine Star
EDITORIAL - �Horrifying� gentleman�s agreement

In diplomacy, every word is carefully chosen to accurately convey even the most nuanced message and leave little room for misinterpretation. The best interpreters are hired for diplomatic and other official meetings where different languages are used, to ensure that nothing is lost in translation. In conflict zones and global flashpoints, misinterpretations or wrong translations can trigger violent confrontation.

This task can be complicated in a so-called gentleman’s agreement between heads of government. Such agreements are typically oral and not legally binding, often clinched over a handshake or a toast. The issue emerged after China claimed the Philippine government had promised to remove the BRP Sierra Madre from Ayungin Shoal. Beijing has yet to provide details of who made the promise and where and when it was given.

Speculation has focused on Rodrigo Duterte, who during much of his presidency had turned his back on the United States and embraced China. Duterte’s former officials, however, have given conflicting statements. His former spokesman Harry Roque said there was a “gentleman’s agreement” between Duterte and Xi for a status quo in the West Philippine Sea, with China allowing resupply missions to the Sierra Madre but not the delivery of construction materials for improvements or fortification of the rusty ship. Roque, however, stressed that Duterte did not promise to remove the Sierra Madre from Ayungin.

On the other hand, Duterte’s former chief legal counsel Salvador Panelo has quoted the former president as saying that there was no such gentleman’s agreement. Roque has stood by his statement, and has said the agreement was also described as a “modus vivendi” between the two countries.

President Marcos, commenting on the issue yesterday, said no proof of such an agreement exists, and in any case, it would not be binding. Hours before his departure for his trilateral summit with his US and Japanese counterparts in Washington, he said he was “horrified” that a “secret agreement” had “compromised” the territory, sovereignty and sovereign rights of the Philippines.

It’s ironic that China refuses to abide by the ruling of the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration, laid out in detail in official documents and based on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, but demands Philippine compliance with a supposed oral promise given by unidentified persons to remove a naval outpost sitting on a shoal within Philippine sovereign waters.

President Marcos said he would talk with the Chinese ambassador in Manila to clarify the issue once and for all. But will the ambassador provide the missing specifics? If there really is an agreement to remove the Sierra Madre from Ayungin, whoever made the claim should come clean about it, identifying the persons involved and clarifying exactly what was agreed upon. This is what honorable gentlemen would do.

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