Duterte’s China ‘agreement’ on Ayungin prevented supply of construction material, says his spokesman

Under the status quo agreement, Philippine vessels may deliver “only water and food” to the BRP Sierra Madre, the grounded World War II-era warship. Thus, any attempt by the Philippines to bring in construction materials to fortify Sierra Madre would be in violation of the agreement.

Jane Bautista

Jane Bautista

Philippine Daily Inquirer


File photo of Presidential spokesperson Harry Roque. PHOTO: PHILIPPINE DAILY INQUIRER

March 28, 2024

MANILA – Former President Rodrigo Duterte accepted a “gentleman’s agreement” with Beijing regarding the nature of Manila’s resupply missions to its remote outpost in Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea, his former spokesperson Harry Roque said on Wednesday.

Under the so-called status quo agreement as described by Roque, Philippine vessels may deliver “only water and food” to the BRP Sierra Madre, the grounded World War II-era warship through which Manila stakes its claim to Ayungin, a low-elevation feature located some 195 kilometers off Palawan province.

Thus, any attempt by the Philippines to bring in construction materials to fortify the rusting and dilapidated Sierra Madre would be in violation of such an agreement, he said, echoing Beijing’s justification for its forces’ water cannon attacks, blocking maneuvers and other acts of harassment on Philippine vessels undertaking routine missions to the shoal.

“It’s not a secret deal,” Roque said in a video interview with the Politiko news site.

“It was made public by former Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Cayetano, that their agreement was to maintain the status quo—no one will move and no conduct of any improvements so there will be no problem,” he added.

READ: China’s claim on journos manipulating WPS videos a ‘barefaced lie’—Focap

“The complaint of China now, contrary to the agreement made in the past, is that [the Philippines] is bringing repair equipment to fix the Sierra Madre,” Roque said.

The Philippines has protested China’s increasingly hostile attempts to obstruct the former’s rotation and resupply (Rore) trips to the Sierra Madre, while the former insists its actions are reasonable in view of Manila’s alleged violations of Beijing’s rights in the sea.

In a message to the Inquirer, Roque clarified that the agreement was only verbal.

“[The] agreement [was] to observe status quo. [It] did not include removal of Sierra Madre,” he said.

But Roque said he deferred to Cayetano on the specifics of the deal, including what the Philippines had supposedly violated.

The Inquirer tried to reach Cayetano for comment, but he did not immediately respond.

‘Only an understanding’

Roque’s statements were consistent with information gathered by the Inquirer from a diplomatic source who agreed to speak only in confidence about the matter earlier this month.

The source refused to call it an “agreement,” saying it was only an “understanding” with the Duterte administration in 2021 that Rore missions in the disputed areas would be allowed as long as they were for “humanitarian purposes.”

The source said the two governments agreed that in conducting such missions, the Philippines would deploy only one vessel and that it must not transport building materials to reinforce Manila’s sovereignty claim to Ayungin.

As to the rights of Filipino fishermen at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, another highly contested rock formation located 220 km west of Zambales province, the source said China’s understanding with the previous administration was that fishermen would be allowed in the area provided the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) would stay out of it.

Manila, however, supposedly tried to “challenge the current understanding” when it brought the PCG along with the fishermen to the disputed waters.

Both Ayungin and Panatag shoals lie within the Philippines’ 370-km exclusive economic zone.

In 1999, the Sierra Madre was deliberately grounded in Ayungin’s shallow waters to serve as an outpost asserting Philippine sovereignty in the area. The rusting ship currently hosts a small contingent of soldiers who are assigned there on rotation.

On Aug. 7, 2023, the Chinese Foreign Ministry claimed that the Philippines “promised several times to tow [the Sierra Madre] away, but has yet to act” on that commitment.

Two days later, on Aug. 9, President Marcos disputed the claim, saying he was not aware of any such arrangement.

“And let me go further, if there does exist such an agreement, I rescind that agreement now,” he said.

Not legally binding

On Wednesday, the National Security Council (NSC) said it was not aware of any deal between the Philippines and China regarding the Rore missions to Ayungin.

Assistant Director General Jonathan Malaya, the NSC spokesperson, said he was surprised by Roque’s statement and encouraged the latter to explain how and why such a deal could have been brokered, considering its implications on national security.

“The good former secretary should be one to explain to the public his statements since such an agreement, if it exists, infringes and violates our sovereignty as a nation,” Malaya said in a statement.

According to him, the National Task Force on the West Philippine Sea has “not seen any document from the former administration that validates or confirms the existence of this so-called ‘gentleman’s agreement’ and the terms of such agreement under the previous administration.”

But maritime security expert and University of the Philippines Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea director Jay Batongbacal said such a deal “explains Duterte’s silence in the last year of his administration when resupply ships were being harassed and water cannoned.”

‘What did they gain?’

Reached by phone on Wednesday, former Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV said it was evident that the agreement was detrimental to the Philippines’ maritime claims in the disputed waters.

He said Roque’s claim was likely true considering “it was confirmed by both parties.”

“Obviously, it was disadvantageous to the Philippines. The question is, [the deal was] in exchange for what? What did the Davao group gain from it? What we know was what happened after—there were so many pro-China policies during that time,” Trillanes said.

But the former senator said he believed that China “would still act the same way” with or without the deal.

“They just want to exert their dominance in the area, whether there was such an agreement or not,” he said, adding: “They will hold on to anything that will be advantageous to them. They won’t honor any abrogation; they will hold on to the word of Mr. Duterte.”

Sole architect

Asked if Duterte should be held accountable for the agreement, Trillanes said: “Theoretically, what he did was a foreign policy. In this country, the president is the sole architect of foreign policy,” he said.

Former Sen. Leila de Lima, spokesperson for the opposition Liberal Party, said Roque’s claim “shows the duplicity of the past administration because the agreement was kept secret from the public.”

She argued that the President “cannot be bound by agreements secretly entered into by a predecessor.”

scroll to top