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Senate probe into 'gentleman's agreement' between Duterte, China sought

A resolution urging the Senate to investigate the supposed "gentleman's agreement" involving the administration of former President Rodrigo Duterte and the Chinese government, which reportedly restricted the repair of BRP Sierra Madre, has been filed.

Senator Risa Hontiveros filed proposed Senate Resolution 982 barely a week after former presidential spokesperson Harry Roque bared Duterte's supposed deal with Beijing wherein the Philippines should only deliver food and water supplies to Filipino troops on BRP Sierra Madre at Ayungin Shoal.

"The 'gentleman's agreement' would explain the relentless harassment via water cannons of our resupply missions by Chinese forces," Hontiveros wrote in the resolution.

"If confirmed to be true, this 'gentleman's agreement' would be tantamount to a surrender of the Philippines' sovereignty, and, in other words of former Philippine Navy flag officer-in-command Eduardo Santos, the Navy Chief who in 1999 ordered that the BRP Sierra Madre be run aground to serve a naval outpost in the Shoal, 'an act of treason,'" she added.

She noted in the measure that even the National Security Council itself, through its Assistant Director General Jonathan Malaya, said that it was not aware of such an agreement, prompting him to urge Roque to explain the circumstances of the supposed deal and how it was brokered as there were implications in national security.

Malaya was an undersecretary at the Department of the Interior and Local Government in the Duterte administration.

“This ‘gentleman's agreement’ is treasonous. While China, in any case, will most likely attack our resupply missions en route to Ayungin, this sham of an agreement only gave Beijing more ammunition to assert her baseless claims. Kung totoo ang kasunduan, mukhang isinuko nga ni Duterte ang teritoryo ng Pilipinas,” Hontiveros said in a separate statement.

(If the agreement is true, it seems like Duterte has surrendered the Philippine territory.)

“Pati pambansang seguridad natin nalagay sa pahamak dahil sa walang-dangal na ‘gentleman’s agreement’ na yan. China is already all around us – sa telecoms, sa national grid, sa karagatan – at mas lalo lang pinalakas ni Duterte ang Tsina sa kasunduang di umanong pinasukan niya,” the senator said.

(Even our national security was compromised because of this dishonorable 'gentleman's agreement.' China is all around us — in our telecommunications, national grid, and in our seas — and China's presence has expanded due to this supposed deal that he brokered.)

The opposition lawmaker emphasized the need to rehabilitate BRP Sierra Madre as it is a "strategic outpost" that will assert Philippines' sovereignty over Ayungin Shoal.

“It is our duty to fortify the BRP Sierra Madre. Without it on Ayungin, we effectively give way for China to illegally occupy what is ours. If we stop reinforcing the Sierra Madre, we not only lose a crucial, strategic outpost, but also fail to defend our sovereignty,” Hontiveros said.

The BRP Sierra Madre is a World War II era tank landing ship that the Philippine Navy deliberately ran aground on Ayungin Shoal (also known as Second Thomas Shoal) in 1999 to serve as a military outpost and as a symbol of Philippine sovereignty over the disputed territory.

Meanwhile, Atty. Salvador Panelo, who was the chief presidential legal counsel under the Duterte administration, said this week that Duterte did not enter into any agreement with China not to maintain BRP Sierra Madre.

Panelo said that anyone who said Duterte had a deal with China over the shoal was seeking publicity for himself.

Panelo said he spoke to Duterte twice over the Holy Week.

"Ang sabi niya, 'I have not entered into any gentleman's agreement whatsoever'," Panelo said quoting Duterte.

"I have been avoiding that Ayungin Shoal like a hot potato kasi alam kong napaka mainit 'yang topic na 'yan kaya wala akong pinagkakasunduan kahit kanino (because I know that is a very hot topic; I did not have an agreement with anyone)," he added.

Retired Supreme Court Justice Francis Jardeleza meanwhile on Monday said President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. can rescind such an agreement with China now that he is the chief architect of foreign policy.

In August last year, denied that the Philippine government had promised China to remove BRP Sierra Madre from Ayungin Shoal.

“I’m not aware of any such arrangement or agreement that the Philippines will remove from its own territory its ship, in this case, the BRP Sierra Madre from the Ayungin Shoal,” Marcos said in a video message.

The President strongly said that he is rescinding any commitment should there really be an existing agreement between the two countries on the removal of the vessel.

"And let me go further, if there does exist such an agreement, I rescind that agreement now,” Marcos said.

China is claiming almost the entire South China Sea, a conduit for more than $3 trillion in annual ship commerce. Its territorial claims overlap with those of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.

Parts of the waters within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ) have been renamed as the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

In 2016, an international arbitration tribunal in The Hague said China's claims had no legal basis, a decision that Beijing has rejected. —KG, GMA Integrated News