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Philippines’ Marcos denies ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with Beijing over South China Sea

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. on Wednesday denied the existence of a “gentleman’s agreement” between his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, and China that Manila would not make repairs to a rusting military outpost in a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.

Duterte’s former spokesman, Harry Roque, has said the previous Philippine government entered into a deal with Beijing to keep the “status quo” in the waterway, which has become the scene of increasingly tense confrontations between the two nations.

As part of the deal, Duterte allegedly agreed the Philippines would not send construction materials to repair the BRP Sierra Madre, a dilapidated World War II-era naval ship that was deliberately run aground on Second Thomas Shoal in 1999.

“We don’t know anything about it,” Marcos told reporters before leaving for talks with U.S. President Joe Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in Washington “There is no documentation, no record. We were not briefed [about it] when I came into office, no one told us that there was that agreement.”

Marcos said his staff were demanding information from ex-Duterte officials, but “we still haven’t got a straight answer.”

“I am horrified by the idea that we have compromised through a secret agreement, the territory, sovereignty and sovereign rights of the Philippines,” Marcos said.

Since taking office in June 2022, Marcos has reversed Duterte’s pro-China policies, realigning with the United States and granting American troops greater access to Philippine bases. 

Duterte has not directly commented on the supposed deal, but the Chinese embassy in Manila has alluded to it on a number of occasions after Chinese vessels have been accused of harassing Filipino supply boats heading to the Sierra Madre. 

China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, while disregarding overlapping claims from Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Last week, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Manila “has been going back on its words and provoking China” over Second Thomas Shoal, without directly mentioning any agreement.

Roque has not replied to requests for comment made by RFA affiliate BenarNews, but he has been quoted widely in local media saying he stands by his earlier statement.

“The gentleman’s agreement is to respect the status quo on the entire West Philippine Sea dispute,” he said, referring to the portion of the South China Sea within Manila’s exclusive economic zone.

As Marcos left on Wednesday afternoon for Washington, the Philippine military reported that some 48 Chinese vessels – mostly from its maritime militia – were being monitored near another disputed outcrop, Scarborough Shoal, and three Philippine-occupied features in the South China Sea.

BenarNews is an RFA-affiliated online news organization.