China-Philippines near full diplomatic collapse at sea

MANILA – Escalating disputes in the South China Sea are entering a perilous new phase with the virtual breakdown in Philippine-China communication channels amid contradictory accounts of diplomatic negotiations aimed at preventing an armed conflict.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr’s administration has categorically rejected multiple claims by China that the two sides had allegedly agreed to certain de-escalation measures over disputed sea territories.

Earlier, China’s embassy in Manila had claimed that the two sides had a “gentleman’s agreement” with the former Rodrigo Duterte administration over the hotly contested Second Thomas Shoal, where the Philippines has a de facto marine detachment atop the grounded BRP Sierra Madre vessel.

More recently, Beijing has claimed that it had negotiated a “new model” with Philippine counterparts to manage disputes over the Scarborough Shoal, which has been under China’s administration control since 2012 after a monthslong naval standoff.

The contested Scarborough Shoal, which lies well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), is situated just over 100 nautical miles from vital Philippine bases at Subic and Clark, which have served as a site for major drills with America and other Western allies in recent years.

In response, Philippine National Security Adviser Eduardo Ano, arguably the most influential security official in Marcos Jr’s cabinet, has accused China of spreading “fake news” and “disinformation.” He has referred to China’s claims as “pathetic desperation.”

The situation has become so dire that China has threatened to release audio recordings of supposed confidential negotiations – a controversial move that could lead to the total collapse of diplomatic channels at a perilous moment in South China Sea tensions.

The downward diplomatic spiral began earlier this year when China claimed it had secured a “gentleman’s agreement” with then-president Duterte, who allegedly promised to scale back Philippine resupply missions to the Second Thomas Shoal.

Under the alleged deal, the Philippines had supposedly promised not to fortify its de facto military facility in the contested maritime area through the supply of concrete, steel and other construction materials.

The incumbent Philippine president lambasted the reputed deal and made it clear that he would “rescind” any agreement that would undermine his country’s position and sovereignty in the contested waters.

With Duterte and his top officials refusing to provide any details of the alleged deal, the Philippine Congress has initiated an investigation to determine if the former government was involved in any treasonous acts.

A clash last month over the Scarborough Shoal, however, has rekindled long-running tensions over the other major flashpoint in bilateral relations. According to Philippine authorities, Chinese forces engaged in “dangerous maneuvers and obstruction” of Philippine patrols in the area.

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Similar to recent incidents in the Second Thomas Shoal, where Philippine Navy and Chinese Coast Guard forces have been at loggerheads, Chinese forces allegedly used water cannons against Philippine vessels.

“This damage serves as evidence of the forceful water pressure used by the China Coast Guard in their harassment of the Philippine vessels,” Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) spokesman Jay Tarriela wrote on his X account, accompanied by video footage of the latest incident.

On April 30, China acknowledged it had “expelled” vessels from the area. China has also reinstalled a barrier about 380 meters long to block entrance to the shoal.

Following a naval standoff in 2012, triggered by a Philippine Navy warship’s attempt to apprehend Chinese fishermen in the area, China has exercised de facto control over the contested shoal.

Successive Philippine governments, backed by its mutual defense treaty ally the US, have warned China against reclaiming and establishing military facilities on the shoal, due to its extreme proximity to vital Philippine infrastructure.

In mid-2017, then-Philippine defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana admitted in a public forum: “There was a plan by the Chinese in June to reclaim Scarborough Shoal. In fact, we received reports from the Americans that there were barges loaded with soil and construction materials going to Scarborough but I think the Americans told the Chinese, ‘Don’t do it.’ For some reason, the Chinese stopped.”

“This is the red line according to the US…and the president also stated it’s a red line. Once the Chinese start exploring and putting rigs, we will talk to them,” he added, emphasizing Manila’s stiff opposition even from the then-Beijing-friendly Duterte administration.

For both Washington and Manila, a Chinese military facility on the Scarborough Shoal would imperil crucial Philippine bases in Subic and Clark. Moreover, any China missile system deployment would also pose a direct threat to the Philippine capital of Manila and key industrialized regions on the northern island of Luzon. 

Over the succeeding months and years, the Philippines made it clear that, despite its then-warming ties with Beijing, any unilateral reclamation or energy exploration activities by China would cross a “red line”.

In exchange for not reclaiming and militarizing the Scarborough Shoal, according to China, there were “temporary special arrangements” that only allowed the Philippines to enjoy limited access for its artisanal fishermen.

“According to the temporary special arrangements by the Chinese side in 2016, Filipino fishermen can fish with small fishing boats in designated waters except the lagoon of [Scarborough Shoal], while the AFP, PCG and other Philippine government vessels and aircraft should refrain from entering the 12 nautical miles and corresponding air space of  [the shoal],” a Chinese embassy spokesman recently said. 

“Over the past seven plus years, the Philippine side had abided by the above agreements and fishing by Philippine fishermen in designated areas off [Scarborough Shoal] was not an issue,” the spokesperson added, squarely blaming the Philippines for the recent uptick in tensions.

“However, these arrangements are unilaterally disrupted by the current Philippine administration who dispatched its coast guard ships and official vessels to intrude a number of times into waters within 12 nautical miles of [Scarborough Shoal] and encouraged the Filipino fishermen to challenge the arrangements to help promote its political agenda,” he added.

Philippine authorities have flatly rejected China’s claim since any such “temporary arrangement” would have effectively ceded Manila’s claim over the resource-rich and geographically vital shoal. They have also rejected negotiation of a supposed “new model” to manage the Second Thomas Shoal dispute.

A Chinese Coast Guard ship uses a water cannon to douse a Philippine Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources vessel near Scarborough Shoal, December 9, 2023. Image: Philippine Coast Guard

“Let us not be influenced by their fabricated stories once again, which aim to confuse the Filipino people and divert the public discourse from the real issue of their harassment and provocative actions in Bajo De Masinloc,” Philippine Coast Guard Spokesman Jay Tarriela said, flatly rejecting any compromise over the shoal. 

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has also emphasized that “only the President of the Republic of the Philippines can approve or authorize agreements entered into by the Philippine government on matters pertaining to South China Sea.”

DFA said that “no Cabinet-level official of the Marcos administration has agreed to any Chinese proposal” over the contested shoals.

Meanwhile, Philippine National Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro, who recently held a “Squad” meeting with his counterparts from the US, Australia and Japan in Hawaii, accused China of spreading disinformation in order to sow confusion and undermine Manila’s strategic position.

“I would like to clearly state that any insinuation that the Department of National Defense is a party to any ‘new model’ is a devious machination of China through their embassy in Manila, and it is curious that it comes right after their actions were condemned in the recent Squad meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii,” Teodoro said, reflecting the near collapse in bilateral diplomatic channels.

Follow Richard Javad Heydarian on X at @Richeydarian



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