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Opinion

Benevolent reef control model

The broader view - Harry Roque - The Philippine Star

When the administration of former president Rodrigo Duterte entered a status quo agreement with the Chinese government, the intention was to diplomatically manage the West Philippine Sea dispute until both parties resolved the issue with finality. The modus vivendi –an informal and provisionary international agreement between the two countries – averted a potential geopolitical and humanitarian crisis. Some military analysts see the contested waterways as a giant powder keg about to go off and precipitate another world war. 

Digong’s “as is where is” approach, as opposed to the seemingly “free-for-all, muscle-flexing” stance of the current administration, also prevented bloodshed. Being protective and respectful of professional soldiers, he ensured that no WPS-enlisted personnel was killed or maimed. The life of a Filipino soldier, most of whom come from the low-income group, is not expendable as far as FPRRD is concerned.

Laying the groundwork

The bilateral arrangement also restrained the Asian superpower’s expansionist activities. As a result, we did not lose another Mischief Reef or Scarborough Shoal to China. Further, the situation in Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, where our marooned BRP Sierra Madre has served as a military outpost since 1999, was less violent and hostile. 

During this period, Philippine-Sino relations reached a renaissance as Digong’s government laid the groundwork for robust economic and political ties. China remains our largest trading partner for the eighth consecutive year (Chinese embassy). The Middle Kingdom is our number one supplier of imported goods, accounting for 26.1 percent of our total imports as of January 2024 (Philippine Statistics Authority). However, the United States and Japan continued to edge out China as our primary export trading partner, likely impacted by our foreign policy pivot to the United States and more aggressive stance in the WPS. 

When I joined the Duterte Cabinet, the bilateral agreement was already in place. Before that, I recall quizzing former defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana about the matter during a House committee budgetary hearing. As a former legislator, I enjoyed scrutinizing the annual national budget. The media reported Lorenzana’s public disclosure of the status quo arrangement. So, the agreement was not a secret or classified information. 

In fact, the Aquino administration had an ongoing deal with Chinese officials concerning the rotation and resupply mission to Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal. In 2013, defense chief Voltaire Gazmin promised Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing that the Philippines would only deliver food and water to the Marines stationed in the BRP Sierra Madre (GMA News/Philippine Daily Inquirer). Since 1999, the dilapidated American-donated warship has served as our military outpost in the low-elevation reef. 

Despite the positive outcomes, the anti-Duterte critics have demonized the “gentleman’s agreement.” The detractors, mostly political allies and officials of the Marcos administration, accused Digong of betraying the Filipino people. Even President Bongbong Marcos Jr. said he was horrified by the secret pact because it “compromised our territory and sovereign rights.” In addition, he would not honor an agreement wherein the movement of Philippine vessels within our exclusive economic zone depends on China’s approval. The country enjoys economic rights but has no sovereign title over Ayungin. Since we do not have sovereignty over the disputed reef, it is not officially part of our territory. 

For the record, FPRRD did not acquiesce to any Chinese demand that was violative of the Constitution and existing laws. As a lawyer and patriot, he did allow the other party to dictate the movement and activities of our troops in Philippine-occupied features and other areas of the WPS. Unlike the controversial “new model of benevolent reef control” that Manila and Beijing brokered in January. The terms of conduct in the Ayungin have become more restrictive. Our country can only have one rotation and resupply mission per month. We need to get China’s permission at least two days in advance, which goes against PBBM’s position.

Turning tables

Now, the tables have turned. Given the “new model agreement” exposé, the accusers have become the accused. Chinese officials released a transcript and recording of a phone conversation between Western Command (Wescom) head Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos and an unnamed Chinese diplomat to the media. Both Carlos and his counterpart agreed to the new terms in Ayungin. Carlos also confirmed that Defense Secretary Gibo Teodoro, National Security Adviser Eduardo Año and the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff Romeo Brawner Jr. have approved the new model. 

The President, I presume, is once again horrified that the pact happened right under his nose. He and his national security cluster officials did not expect to be blindsided by China. However, I find it incredulous that the deal happened without the knowledge and authority of our foreign policy chief architect. 

As expected, Gibo, Año and Brawner (a classmate of Carlos in the Philippine Military Academy) have repeatedly denied that the agreement exists. Brawner said transcripts and audio recordings can be fabricated. Meanwhile, Gibo asked the Department of Foreign Affairs to investigate the matter. If the illegal recording is proven, the DFA should expel the erring Chinese diplomats for violating the Philippine anti-wiretapping law. 

Their assertions contradict each other. First, raising the issue of wiretapping against Chinese diplomats is tantamount to an admission of the agreement’s existence. Second, all diplomatic agents enjoy immunity from criminal, civil and administrative jurisdiction of the receiving State. They are not obliged to give evidence as a witness (Article 31, Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations). Ergo, the DFA cannot compel diplomats to cooperate with any probe. 

Punishing them through expulsion without legal basis would automatically downgrade our relations with China. I expect the latter to retaliate by expelling our ambassador to China and other Filipino diplomats. Thus, it would further intensify the conflict between the Philippines and China.

I do not think a navy officer of Carlos’ caliber would negotiate on our country’s behalf without the approval of the Office of the President or his military superiors. Any enlisted or commissioned personnel worth his salt would never attempt to disobey the military hierarchy and chain of command.

In a statement, the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Makatao Class of 1989 has defended the integrity of their beleaguered “Mistah.” Their class president, Lt. General Ernesto Torres Jr., signed the statement. They described that his dedication to duty, honor and country exemplifies the highest standards of military service and reflects the AFP’s core principles. Reading between the lines, I sense the dismay of the Makatao Class. The repeated denials of defense and military officials have made a liar, an insubordinate and a traitor of the Wescom chief, who is on a leave of absence. 

Another retired officer, Brig. General Orlando de Leon, called on Año, who was his classmate in PMA, and Gibo to resign. In a Facebook post, de Leon said the two officials were caught with their trousers down. He also assailed the lies they foisted on the public and called their claims that the Chinese wiretapped a conversation on a bilateral agreement as stupid.   

I hope Vice Admiral Carlos will air his side very soon.

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