‘Gentleman’s Agreement’ In The South China Sea: Dispute Management Meets Domestic Politics – Analysis


The polemics over a so-called “gentleman’s agreement” between the Philippines and China to manage a bitter row over the South China Sea may confound future diplomatic efforts to handle the spat. China sees Philippine commitment as fleeting, with abrupt reversals from earlier understandings not startling and discreet deals fair game to domestic partisan politics. Manila dismisses Beijing’s revelations as part of its false narratives meant to sow discord and confusion. Unreliability breeds skepticism. Divulging details of supposed behind-the-scenes negotiations is reprehensible. 

Despite both sides’ initial hope and interest, maritime tensions hijacked relations. On the sidelines of last year’s APEC Summit in San Francisco, Presidents Ferdinand Marcos and Xi Jinping agreed that the sea row should not define bilateral ties. However, later events showed how maritime issues cause relations to deteriorate. Philippine Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro and National Security Adviser Eduardo Año called for the expulsion of Chinese embassy officials responsible for recording a supposed phone conversation between a Chinese diplomat and a Filipino military official.  

“New deal” to manage old disputes? 

Two supposed deals are put on the spot – one over Second Thomas Shoal and another over Scarborough Shoal. Both features were sites of the most violent sea mishaps between the two sides. Chinese coast guard ships used water cannons to drive away a Filipino civilian supply boat contracted by the military bound for Second Thomas last March. The month after, a similar high-pressure water blasting against a Filipino coast guard ship and a fisheries authority vessel off to bring supplies to Filipino fishers in Scarborough occurred. 

Beijing took control of Scarborough after a tense standoff in 2012, while Manila maintains a presence in Second Thomas through BRP Sierra Madre, an old rusting tank landing ship grounded on the low-lying reef in 1999. In 2016, the then-new Duterte government purportedly entered into a pact with China that allowed Filipino fishers to resume fishing in Scarborough, a rich traditional fishing ground. A supposed agreement over Second Thomas allowed Manila to bring basic provisions to its troops but not construction materials to reinforce the beached ship. Critics argue that such informal accords compromised Philippine interests since access to the two features is seemingly hinged on Chinese consent and regulation. Filipinos were restricted from entering Scarborough’s lagoon, where there were more fish. Philippine military and coast guard assets were also barred from entering the rock’s 12 nautical mile territorial sea or airspace. Meanwhile, failure to fortify the weathered BRP Sierra Madre may erode the country’s sovereign marker in Second Thomas, although repairs were still made despite the supposed deal. 

One sorry consequence of all this raucous sea drama was the dissipation of dispute management and preventive diplomacy. China wants to revive the Joint Coast Guard committee platform between the two parties established during the previous government, but there seems to be no enthusiasm on Manila’s part. The hotline communication between the banner maritime agencies of both sides was also severed. Philippine Navy Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos of the Western Command who spoke on the phone with a Chinese military attache to help de-escalate tensions, wasrelieved from his duty. Without setting a bottom, relations can further descend. The rancor may make the search for a mutually face-saving off-ramp more difficult. 

At the rate things are going, another run-in may be just around the corner. That it could be worse than the previous is not unlikely. From lasers and dangerous maneuvers to collisions and water cannons against civilian supply boats and, most recently, against government vessels, one shudders what could be next. Even the deterrent value of joint sails and exercises with allies and partners is now under strain as China undertakes simultaneous drills and deploys ships to shadow rival vessels in choppy waters. The most dangerous sea incident thus far between both sides occurred while the 2024 Philippine-U.S. Balikatan military exercise was ongoing. This is despite this year’s drill being touted as one the biggest and most complex in the history of the annual activity. 

In reply to Manila’s transparency initiative, exposing Chinese activities in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, Beijing also began to bare all, spilling the beans on deals that were apparently reached with the former and current Philippine governments. Marcos’ fiery speech at the Shangri-la Dialogue and Chinese seizure of supplies meant for Filipino troops stationed in Second Thomas show more fireworks are underway. Beijing also accusedFilipino soldiers of pointing guns at its coast guard. 

Yet, for all these worrying developments, the last public high-level in-person meeting between the two disputants happened last January during the eighth bilateral consultative mechanism held in Shanghai, attended by their respective vice foreign ministers. The Philippines was absent at the 19th Western Pacific Naval Symposium held in Qingdao last month – the only member to miss the biennial meeting that gathers naval leaders from 30 countries. Whether it was a deliberate snub or not, the event in the eastern Chinese city, home to PLA Navy’s North Sea Fleet, coincided with the early days of Balikatan. Opportunities for frank and candid exchanges are now hard to come by, so letting one pass is a blunder. 

In stark contrast, the U.S. and China, despite the range of issues that divide them, have been increasing high-level official contacts. While the first week of Balikatan was underway, Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Shanghai and Beijing, where he met Public Security Minister Wang Xiaohong, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Two weeks prior and days before the Philippines-US-Japan trilateral summit in Washington, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen was in Guangzhou and Beijing to talk business with Chinese leaders. No country should delegate its security or diplomacy to another country, even to a longstanding ally. If you are not on the table, you can be on the menu. The 2012 Scarborough deal can be a case in point. 

Domestic politics can complicate diplomacy 

A congressional probe on the alleged “gentleman’s agreement” was made with some solonswanting former President Rodrigo Duterte to appear. But such an inquiry may also set a worrisome precedent. There can be no statute of limitations for such investigation in aid of legislation. What would prevent a lawmaker from filing a resolution to examine a supposed 2012 deal brokered by the U.S. that called for Philippine and Chinese ships to simultaneously withdraw from Scarborough? The meeting allegedly took place in a Virginia hotel betweenthen-U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell and Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying. It was unclear if a Philippine representative was in the meeting, but Manila obliged and accused China of reneging. Since then, Manila lost control of the feature, and one can see Duterte’s move as salvaging something from an already bad situation he inherited. A Senate inquiry over a leaked Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency report dated 2012 shows the possibility of scrutinizing an event more than a decade ago. This means the circumstances around the 2012 U.S.-mediated deal can be unpacked. 

The open feud between former and current Philippine presidents may give a political color to such investigations. That domestic politics can ferret out such confidential discussions or upset such arrangements means the current Marcos administration can also be held answerable by its successor. For instance, an inquiry into the decision to expand U.S. military access in the country, including three additional sites in northern Luzon close to Taiwan but distant from the West Philippine Sea, may be revived. The same goes for reported U.S. involvement in building a possible dual-use port in Batanes, which is not even a designated agreed site under the 2014 Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. If Manila’s warming up to a Taiwan contingency is a big factor behind more intense Chinese pressure on the West Philippine Sea, then some lawmakers may ask what’s behind the Marcos giving America a blank check in northern Luzon and Batanes. 

One silver lining is that despite all the noise, most Filipinos still prefer diplomacy to address the multiparty maritime tiff. A recent survey revealed that 72% of Filipinos support diplomacy and peaceful approaches in dealing with the sea row. Unlike China or Vietnam, it may be hard to insulate foreign policy from the vagaries of domestic politics in a boisterous democracy like the Philippines. Although foreign policy generally does not figure high in midterm elections, politicians may ride on it to boost their nationalist credentials and shore up their campaigns. Anything related to China, from offshore gaming, tourists, students, and academic exchanges to investments, can be politicized and securitized. This is a challenging time for diplomacy. 

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a Research Fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation. He was a lecturer at the Chinese Studies Program at the Ateneo de Manila University and the International Studies Department at the De La Salle University and contributing editor (Reviews) for the journal Asian Politics & Policy. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Philippine Association for Chinese Studies. He obtained his Master of Laws from Peking University and is presently pursuing his MA International Affairs at American University in Washington D.C.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *