Beijing denies its South China Sea deal with former Philippine leader Duterte was a ‘secret’

China on Thursday rejected comments by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr claiming that his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte had struck a “secret” deal with Beijing over the South China Sea.

Beijing added that the Marcos government complied with the agreement for more than half a year before abandoning it.

Marcos said last Friday that a deal between Duterte and China over the Second Thomas Shoal – known as Renai Jiao in China and Ayungin Shoal in the Philippines – was “a secret agreement” that “could compromise sovereignty”.

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In a statement released on Thursday, the Chinese embassy in Manila denied the deal was a secret and said the Marcos government had abided by the agreement after taking office in 2022 and even reached a “new understanding” with the Chinese side.

“Since the current government of the Philippines took office, China has repeatedly informed and negotiated with the top members of the administration on matters relating to the ‘gentleman’s agreement’,” an embassy spokesman said.

“Until the beginning of February 2023, seven months after the current Philippine government took office, the relevant departments and agencies of both sides had complied with this agreement, effectively ensuring peace and stability in the situation on Renai Jiao,” the spokesman said.

The agreement with Duterte was intended to manage the situation, maintain peace and prevent conflict, the statement said, emphasising that it had “nothing to do with our respective sovereign positions”.

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Chinese floating barrier blocks entrance to Philippine ships at South China Sea flashpoint

Chinese floating barrier blocks entrance to Philippine ships at South China Sea flashpoint

The statement added that China had reached further consensus with the Marcos administration.

According to the embassy, China in 2023 invited a special envoy of the Philippine president to discuss the situation on the reef and reached an “internal understanding”.

In early 2024, after repeated negotiations with the Philippine military through diplomatic channels, the two sides agreed on a new arrangement for resupply to the reef, the statement said.

“But the relevant understandings and arrangement, after being implemented once, were unilaterally discarded by the Philippine side without giving any reasons,” it added.

It urged the Philippines to honour its commitments, abide by the consensus, stop provocations and “return to the right track of dialogue and consultation as soon as possible”.

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The Second Thomas Shoal has been a hotspot of intensifying tensions between China and the Philippines over the past year.

The uninhabited reef in the Spratly Islands, known as the Nansha Islands in China, is located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone but is also claimed by China. The Philippine navy in 1999 intentionally stranded a retired World War II warship on the reef and has since maintained personnel presence on the wreck as an outpost.

Former Philippine president Duterte, who improved ties with China during his 2016-2022 term, reached the “gentleman’s agreement” to maintain the status quo on the reef and avoid making a move that would disrupt the peace, he confirmed recently.

But last week Marcos denied the existence of the deal, saying his government would not honour an agreement that “says we need to seek permission from another country to be able to do something within our own territory”.

Since early 2023, there have been repeated incidents over the replenishment of the Philippine ship. The Chinese side has continuously blocked Philippine resupply efforts to the outpost, and confrontations between Chinese coastguard ships and Philippine coastguard and naval vessels have frequently been reported.

The Chinese foreign ministry last week outlined three demands for Manila. It said the Philippines should remove the stranded vessel and restore the uninhabited status of the Second Thomas Shoal. It also said that before removal, resupply to the ship must be approved, checked and monitored by the Chinese side. Finally, it said Beijing would “never accept and resolutely block” attempts to transport construction material for building permanent facilities on the reef.

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