A not so gentlemen’s agreement

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva - The Philippine Star

For the past several weeks, Beijing has making hay over the supposed “official commitment” of the Philippine government to tow BRP Sierra Madre out of the Ayungin Shoal. This alleged “official commitment” was purportedly struck at the highest levels of the governments of both the Philippines and China. While it remains a mystery, it produced another running story called as a “gentlemen’s agreement.” In both narratives, none of the supposed parties involved would confirm it indeed existed.

The BRP Sierra Madre sits within our country’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) included in the West Philippine Sea (WPS). The Ayungin Shoal is one of shoals, reefs, atolls, islands and rocks being disputed around the overlapping maritime claims in the South China Sea.

The BRP Sierra Madre gets regular shipment of supplies and military personnel changes. These resupply missions to Ayungin have become perilous to civilian delivery boats hired by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Repeatedly challenged and harassed by Chinese Coast Guard ships – from aggressive maneuvers to dangerous laser pointing and lately resorting to use of water cannon – escort ships of the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) were not even spared by Beijing’s bid to stop the resupply missions.

These have been going on despite the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling at The Hague in July 2016 that already trashed Beijing’s nine-dash-line claim in the South China Sea. The Hague upheld the provisions in favor of archipelagic claims of the Philippines as defined under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The United States and the other like-minded countries of Australia, Japan and South Korea as well as the European Union states gave their full support to the Philippine victory at The Hague. Thus, the same international community has time and again denounced the continuing aggressive maneuvers of Chinese Coast Guard ships as threatening freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.

Other than mere statements to the media by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, no signed document has so far been presented as evidence of the alleged “official commitment” of the Philippines.

But out of nowhere, suddenly the name of former president Joseph Estrada was dragged anew into the controversy as supposedly having entered into this “official commitment.” Already retired from politics, the former president was most flabbergasted when this allegation was first thrown at him a few months back. So much so that one of his two incumbent senator sons, Jinggoy Estrada, as chairman of the Senate committee on national defense, called for a full legislative inquiry into what he called as a “dis-information” campaign against the Philippines by enemies of the State.

It was during the Estrada administration when the BRP Sierra Madre became the official marker of our territorial claims over Ayungin Shoal. No less than former Cabinet member of ex-president Estrada at that time, Department of National Defense (DND) secretary Orlando Mercado, already publicly admitted having recommended such action. “BRP Sierra Madre was deliberately run aground in 1999. I had PJEE’s approval,” Mercado swore.

So where’s the logic of such a non-sensical allegation?

Incidentally, ex-president Estrada is turning 86 years old this coming April 19. I bumped into him at the reception for the 76th birthday of his former Department of Budget and Management (DBM) secretary Benjamin Diokno. Also in attendance were former executive secretary Salvador Medialdea and former DND secretary Delfin Lorenzana. Both Medialdea and Lorenzana served as Cabinet officials of former president Rodrigo Duterte.

Medialdea has retired from public service but has remained as legal counsel of ex-president Duterte. On the other hand, Lorenzana is now the chairman of the Bases Conversion and Development Authority (BCDA). So I took this rare opportunity to personally raise this matter with the two gentlemen. After all, both could be privy to such sensitive information during the Duterte presidency.

I asked each of them about the alleged “gentlemen’s agreement” entered into supposedly by ex-president Duterte with President Xi Jinping on how to go about the fate of BRP Sierra Madre. If we are to believe there was such a “gentlemen’s agreement,” the moribund Philippine Navy ship will supposedly be left to rot away in Ayungin and that China will even tow away the ship at no cost to the Philippines.

Having once held the post as the “little President,” Medialdea reminded me that our 1987 Constitution vests upon the President the role of “chief architect” of country’s foreign policy. Medialdea swore ex-president Duterte made no such informal or formal agreement with the Chinese leader. “He (the ex-president) was most transparent in whatever he does and always tells the public even about what he feels or thinks about,” Medialdea cited.

Lorenzana, for his part, swore ex-president Duterte never did anything that compromised our country’s West Philippine Sea claims. Not even the persistence of former Chinese ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua, he recalled, could hold sway over ex-president Duterte.

Presumably, this alleged “gentlemen’s agreement” was premised on the fact that there will be no sending of construction materials and other supply requisitions for the BRP Sierra Madre. It was obviously giving credence to the public declarations of ex-president Duterte being open to his pro-China policy during his watch at Malacañang.

Although no details were provided, the alleged Duterte-Xi “gentlemen’s agreement” was attested to by former presidential spokesman Harry Roque. In his personal vlog and regular broadcast on the SMNI radio-TV, Roque narrated being aware that such “gentlemen’s agreement” existed between the two leaders.

However, Roque’s revelation was vehemently denied the next day by another former Duterte Cabinet official. On his own radio-TV program at the SMNI, erstwhile Chief Presidential Legal Counsel Salvador Panelo belied the claims of Roque. Panelo swore their former boss would not commit any acts that would unduly impinge upon the country’s national interest.

Incidentally, the SMNI is run by Mr. Duterte’s arch ally, Pastor Quiboloy. This was not the first time Panelo publicly disputed Roque’s pronouncements that supposedly had the imprimatur of ex-president Duterte.

The two ex-Duterte Cabinet men were having this not so gentlemen’s agreement whenever it comes to speaking in behalf of the former president.

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