Gibo warns of China trap over Sierra Madre deal

Michael Punongbayan, Marc Jayson Cayabyab - The Philippine Star
Gibo warns of China trap over Sierra Madre deal
Department of National Defense (DND) Secretary Gilbert Teodoro on March 13, 2024.
STAR / Jesse Bustos

MANILA, Philippines — Filipinos are getting “sidetracked” by the debates over the so-called gentleman’s agreement with China on the West Philippine Sea, and are falling into a trap set by China to divert attention from its depredation in Philippine waters, Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro Jr. said yesterday.

“Let us not fall into the trap set by Chinese propaganda of refocusing the debate on a so-called promise while deflecting attention away from China’s government, thereby freeing and allowing them to continue with their illegal activities in our EEZ (exclusive economic zone),” Teodoro said in an open letter to “our fellow Filipinos.”

China had accused the Philippine government of reneging on its supposed promise to remove the BRP Sierra Madre from Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal in accordance with the “gentleman’s agreement” between the two governments.

Former presidential spokesman Harry Roque earlier admitted it was former president Rodrigo Duterte who made an unwritten pact with China to keep the status quo on the maritime dispute and disallow any repair on the deteriorating Sierra Madre. Deliberately beached in the shoal in 1997 during the Estrada administration to serve as a military outpost, the Sierra Madre now badly needs repairs. Roque warned the Philippines might end up losing Ayungin Shoal if it insists on having the rusty ship refurbished. Told of the “gentleman’s agreement,” President Marcos said he had it rescinded.

“While we realize that accountability is important in the issue on whether or not a so-called ‘gentleman’s agreement’ was forged with China regarding the BRP Sierra Madre and Ayungin Shoal, we Filipinos must not lose sight of the fact that the main threat to our rights in the WPS is the Chinese government’s illegal activities,” Teodoro stressed.

The last two rotation and resupply missions sent to Ayungin Shoal drew the most violent response so far from the China Coast Guard, which blasted the Philippine boats with water cannons to prevent them from reaching the Sierra Madre. Reacting to protests Beijing claimed its coast guard had to block the Filipino vessels because they were carrying construction materials.

Although in decrepit state, the Sierra Madre should not be decommissioned – as proposed by Roque – as doing so would trigger its takeover by the Chinese, former senator Antonio Trillanes IV said yesterday.

“That’s a trap. That’s what China wants,” Trillanes said in an interview with ANC’s “Headstart,” referring to decommissioning of Sierra Madre. He said the World War II era transport ship should remain a military vessel to keep it covered by the 1951 Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty.

For Roque, the Philippine Navy ship should be demilitarized and turned into a civilian coast guard vessel to soften China’s position and allow its repair.

“Theoretically, China’s People’s Liberation Army can easily overrun the BRP Sierra Madre. But since it is a commissioned Navy ship, attacking it might trigger the Mutual Defense Treaty,” Trillanes said. “The moment you decommission is the time it will be vulnerable to harassment.”

He lashed out at Roque for parroting China’s line when the latter claimed that the present administration’s hardline stance to defend the country’s maritime and sovereign rights might worsen the situation and could risk losing Ayungin Shoal.

Roque said the present administration’s policy had only provoked China into using powerful water cannons to stop Philippine ships from delivering provisions to the Sierra Madre.

“There are a lot of ways to resupply BRP Sierra Madre. I believe what the Marcos administration is doing is the right path. They are drawing international attention,” Trillanes said.

The former senator said standing firm on the country’s position while engaging in diplomacy is possible, recalling his backchanneling talks that he did for then president Benigno Aquino III to deescalate the 2012 Panatag Shoal standoff.

“That’s fear-mongering. That’s the narrative that China wants to spread, and it’s ironic that Filipinos are spreading that Chinese propaganda,” Trillanes said.

He urged the Senate to open an investigation on the alleged gentleman’s agreement between Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

A Senate investigation would provide answers to questions surrounding the deal, as Trillanes said he and the late president Aquino were being blamed for the 2012 standoff that ended with China seizing control of Panatag Shoal.

“I’m calling on the Senate or the House of Representatives to open an investigation to find out more about this secret deal with China. I and then President Aquino are always the whipping boy when there’s a problem to deflect and misdirect,” Trillanes said.

He said China’s seizure of Panatag Shoal prompted the Aquino administration to file an arbitration case against China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration, which the Philippines won, invalidating Beijing’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea.

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