South China Sea: Duterte-Xi pact investigation fuels political payback allegations

The Philippines’ House of Representatives has said it will formally investigate Rodrigo Duterte over an unwritten pact he allegedly made secretly with China, a move some observers say is aimed at dampening the former president’s political clout ahead of elections next year.

In announcing the investigation on Monday, house speaker Martin Romualdez, a cousin of President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr, said “we support [the president’s] denouncement of the secret gentleman’s agreement between former President Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping”.

The agreement was first mentioned early last month by former Duterte spokesman Harry Roque, who said that, while he was in office, Duterte had made a private deal with Xi in which Beijing would not build any new military outposts in the disputed waters of the South China Sea.

A Philippine flag flutters from the BRP Sierra Madre, a dilapidated Philippine military detachment on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea. File photo: Reuters

In return, Manila would not send construction materials to repair the BRP Sierra Madre – a World War II era navy ship that was deliberately grounded on the Second Thomas Shoal to serve as an outpost.

Roque’s revelation quickly generated outrage and calls for Duterte to be charged with treason. Marcos Jnr said he was “horrified” by the news, claiming he did not know anything about the agreement and that he had been given the runaround by officials when he tried to look into it.

Duterte responded to his critics by denying that he had ever struck a “gentlemen’s deal” with Xi that would entail forfeiting his country’s territorial rights, but argued that Beijing was ready to “go to war” so he had agreed with Xi to maintain the “status quo” in the disputed waters.

The announcement of the investigation into Duterte’s agreement comes in the midst of an increasingly bitter feud between the Marcos and Duterte clans. Over the past four months, the Dutertes have held rallies calling for Marcos Jnr to step down. Congressman Pantaleon Alvarez, a key Duterte ally, called on the military to withdraw its support for Marcos Jnr and force him to resign.

Duterte attends an event in Manila in 2016, while he was still president. Photo: AP

Political analyst and former presidential political adviser Ronald Llamas said the fact that the House of Representatives, which Duterte lorded over when he was president, was starting an investigation against him meant the move was political payback engineered by Marcos Jnr.

Llamas, who chairs political risk firm Galahad Consulting Agency, told This Week in Asia “for now, [Duterte] is the main threat to Marcos, especially after all of his attacks”.

Those attacks included threats of “insurrection, uprising, mutiny, even hints of assassination”, he said.

Llamas pointed out that during a rally in January in the Duterte stronghold of Davao City, the ex-president’s son, Sebastian “Baste” Duterte, had called on Marcos Jnr to resign and ominously referenced the Romanovs and Mussolini – figures notorious for being killed by their political rivals.



What’s behind the apparent feud between the Marcos, Duterte clans in the Philippines?

What’s behind the apparent feud between the Marcos, Duterte clans in the Philippines?

He also noted that the congressional investigation could be used to dent Duterte’s popularity – especially ahead of the midterm elections scheduled for May of next year.

“In the past, foreign policy was never politically sexy, never an election issue, it was never emotional – until now. Partly because of social media, partly because of the aggression of China, it’s emotional, it could be an election issue,” he said.

According to Llamas, “if foreign policy becomes an election issue, it can be weaponised against the Dutertes” and also used against pro-Duterte candidates such as senators Bato dela Rosa, Bong Go and Francis Tolentino, who are up for re-election next year.

Philippine Vice-President Sara Duterte speaks during an event in Manila on January 28. Photo: AFP

The analyst also argued that the popularity enjoyed by Vice-President Sara Duterte was “only reflected glory” from her father. “So could this dent her popularity also? I think so.

“Even her father, who is like Teflon, is seeing his approval ratings start to go down from a high of 93 per cent to 47 per cent.”

Roque, who remains a staunch Duterte supporter, told This Week in Asia the investigation was clearly a political attack on the former president.

“Obviously, they want to embarrass, to pillory him because he has said a mouthful against Congress.”

Duterte-Xi allegedly made ‘gentleman’s agreement’ for status quo in disputed sea

But, Roque warned, “I think they’re going to find out that even Marcos will continue the [gentleman’s agreement] whether they like it or not. Because, if he doesn’t, China will build so many more artificial islands and installations.”

Roque also implied that Duterte might have used the agreement to do things without China’s knowledge. “The reality is, if no improvements were made to the Sierra Madre, it would have sunk already [during Duterte’s six years in office].”

“I wish Congress would be more circumspect about it because I don’t think you want China to know exactly what President Duterte did in spite of the status quo agreement,” he added.



Philippines sets up ‘game changer’ monitoring station on island in disputed South China Sea

Philippines sets up ‘game changer’ monitoring station on island in disputed South China Sea

As for the possibility that Duterte could claim executive privilege and refuse to talk to investigators, Roque said: “I do not know if he will invoke it because it’s up to him – but we all know that communication is a matter long traditionally exempted from freedom of information because leaders must be allowed to make correct decisions even if they are unpopular decisions.”

But according to former presidential adviser Llamas, the agreement was a constitutional grey area as far as “executive privilege” was concerned since it would have involved him making a secret deal to put the interests of another country ahead of his own.

“It could be treasonous, so we have to discuss that in Congress and Senate. If it’s going to be a treaty, it has to go through Congress, so what kind of animal is it that they came up with?”



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