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China publicizes for the first time what it claims is a 2016 agreement with Philippines

TAIPEI, Taiwan (AP) — For the first time, China has made public what it claims is an unwritten 2016 agreement with the Philippines over access to islands in the South China Sea.

The move threatens to further increase tensions on the controversial waterway, through which much of the world’s trade passes and which China claims virtually in its entirety.

A statement from the Chinese embassy in Manila said the “temporary special arrangement” agreed during a visit to Beijing by former President Rodrigo Duterte allowed small-scale fishing around the islands but restricted access to the military. , coast guards and other official aircraft and vessels. Limit of 12 nautical miles (22 kilometers) of territorial waters.

The Philippines respected the agreement for the past seven years, but has since renounced it to “fulfill its own political agenda,” forcing China to act, the statement said.

“This is the fundamental reason for the incessant maritime disputes between China and the Philippines over the past year and beyond,” said the statement posted on the embassy’s website on Thursday, referring to the Philippines’ actions. .

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Duterte have denied entering into agreements that allegedly ceded Philippine sovereignty or sovereign rights to China. Such action, if proven, would constitute an impeachable offense under the country’s 1987 Constitution.

However, after his visit to Beijing, Duterte hinted at such a deal without giving details, said Collin Koh, a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies based at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and expert on naval affairs in India. Pacific region, particularly Southeast Asia.

“He then bragged that he had not only secured Chinese investment and trade promises, but also secured access for Filipino fishermen to the Scarborough Reef,” Koh said, referring to one of the maritime features in dispute.

Beijing’s deliberate wording in the statement “is notable because it shows that Beijing does not have any official documents to prove its case and therefore can only rely on Duterte’s verbal assertions,” Koh said.

Marcos, who took office in June 2022, told reporters last month that China had insisted there was such a secret deal, but said he was not aware of it.

“The Chinese insist that there is a secret agreement and, perhaps, there is, and I said no, I don’t know anything about this secret agreement,” said Marcos, who brought the Philippines closer to its commitment. The United States, treaty partner. “Should such a secret agreement be made, I cancel it now. »

Duterte, who enjoyed warm relations with Chinese President Xi Jinping during his six years as president, while being openly hostile to the United States for its harsh criticism of its deadly campaign against illegal drugs.

While he took an almost virulent anti-American stance during his 2016 visit to Washington’s main rival, he said he also had not reached a deal with Beijing that would have compromised Philippine territory. He acknowledged, however, that he and Xi had agreed to maintain “the status quo” in the disputed waters to avoid war.

“Apart from having a handshake with President Xi Jinping, the only thing I remember is this status quo, that’s the word. There will be no contact, no movement, no armed patrol there, as is the case there, so there will be no confrontation,” Duterte said.

Asked if he agreed that the Philippines would not bring construction materials to reinforce a Philippine military outpost at Second Thomas Shoal, Duterte said it was part of maintaining the status quo, but added that there was no written agreement.

“That’s what I remember. If it was a Gentleman’s Agreement, it would still have been an agreement to maintain peace in the South China Sea,” Duterte said.

House Speaker Ferdinand Martin Romualdez, Marcos’ cousin and political ally, has ordered an investigation into what some call a “gentleman’s agreement.”

China also claimed that Philippine authorities had promised to tow the navy ship deliberately stranded in the shallows of the Second Thomas Shoal in 1999 to serve as a territorial outpost for Manila. Philippine officials under Marcos say they were unaware of such a deal and would not withdraw the now dilapidated and rust-encrusted warship, manned by a small contingent of Filipino sailors and marines.

China has long accused Manila of “violating its commitments” and “acting illegally” in the South China Sea, without being explicit.

Besides China and the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei also have overlapping claims to a sea rich in fishing stocks, gas and oil. Beijing has refused to recognize a 2016 international arbitration ruling by a U.N.-affiliated Hauge tribunal that invalidated its broad claims on historical grounds.

Skirmishes between Beijing and Manila have flared since last year, with massive Chinese coastguards firing high-pressure water cannons at Philippine patrol boats, most recently off Scarborough Shoal late last month, damaging the two. They also accused each other of dangerous maneuvers, resulting in minor scratches.

The United States does not lay claim to the South China Sea, but has deployed Navy ships and fighter jets in what it calls freedom of navigation operations that have challenged China’s claims.

The United States has repeatedly warned that it is obligated to defend the Philippines – its oldest ally in Asia – if Philippine forces, ships or aircraft are targeted by armed attack, including in the South China Sea .

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Associated Press writer Jim Gomez contributed to this report from Manila, Philippines.

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