Medialdea: Ayungin status quo deal started in 2013 under Gazmin

MANILA, Philippines — The status quo commitment on the Ayungin Shoal — that only food and water would be delivered to troops stationed there — started in 2013 under former Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, former executive secretary Salvador Medialdea said on Tuesday.

Medialdea, during the joint hearing of the House of Representatives committee on national defense and security and the committee on the West Philippine Sea, said that Gazmin made this commitment to former Chinese ambassador to the Philippines Ma Keqing.

Medialdea was the executive secretary when former President Rodrigo Duterte was in office, while Gazmin was Defense secretary of former president Benigno Aquino III, who was in office from 2010 to 2016.

“The status quo at the Ayungin Shoal where BRP Sierra Madre — a dilapidated warship which has served as a Philippine military outpost in a low-elevation reef since 1999 — was in a 2013 commitment of former Defense Secretary Gazmin to the Chinese ambassador Ma Keqing that he would only deliver food and water to the marines stationed at the vessel,” Medialdea told the lawmakers.

When 1-Rider party-list Rep. Ramon Rodrigo Gutierrez asked Medialdea to clarify where he got the information, the former executive secretary said that this was passed to him when they were preparing for the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) decision on who has the sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

The Philippines, during the term of Aquino, filed an arbitration case before PCA to protest China’s intrusion in the WPS.  The decision, which the Philippines won, was issued on July 12, 2016 — 12 days after Duterte was sworn into office.

“I cannot elaborate it particularly on the status, that’s what I gathered when the decision came out 12 days after we assumed office, I was asking around what is the present status at Ayungin Shoal because I know there was a vessel there, and the information I gathered was that there was a previous commitment that food and water will be allowed to be shipped to the dilapidated vessel since 2013,” he said.

“I got that source from one of the officials before, I cannot recall [who], it was an off-the-cuff query when the decision was about to come out, ‘Ano bang status d’yan (What is the status there)?’  That was it,” he added.

Gutierrez then turned to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) representative, who said that they were not aware of any 2013 commitment on the Ayungin Shoal.

In May 2013, China raised its concerns about the Philippines’ reported plans of establishing structures on Ayungin Shoal during a brief meeting between Gazmin and Ma on the sidelines of the commemoration of the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers on Wednesday at Camp Aguinaldo.

Reports stated that the two personalities were seen talking for a few minutes after the event.

“They were concerned [with the] Philippines coming up with structures, additional structures in the Ayungin Shoal and I told her that the ship that is moving towards Ayungin is only for provisions of food and water for soldiers who are there,” Gazmin told reporters when asked about their topic.

Then in 2014, Gazmin said during a Senate budget hearing that the Philippine Navy was able to conduct resupply missions to Ayungin Shoal without harassment from Chinese Maritime Surveillance (CMS) vessels.

READ: Gazmin: Chinese ships haven’t bothered PH troops at Ayungin Shoal

Earlier in the House panels’ hearing Tuesday, Medialdea said that never was a gentleman’s deal discussed during the two meetings between Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping, which he was a part of.

Medialdea revealed that Duterte and Xi had eight meetings from October 2016 to 2019, all of which Duterte was accompanied by his Foreign Affairs secretaries.

Talks about a gentleman’s agreement first came out after Duterte’s former presidential spokesperson, lawyer Harry Roque, confirmed to reporters last March 27 that Duterte and China had a deal to maintain the current situation in the disputed region.

Roque mentioned this when asked why China had been so aggressive when Philippine vessels conducted resupply missions to troops stationed in Ayungin Shoal during the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.

Resupply missions intend to reach BRP Sierra Madre, a Navy ship deliberately ran aground Ayungin in 1999.

President Marcos questioned the deal, asking Duterte several times as to what the latter compromised in that deal.

Concerns regarding the gentleman’s agreement prompted the two panels to launch a probe on the issue.  The hearings started on Monday, but several officials — particularly Medialdea, former Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, and former national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. — failed to show up.

READ: Solons question past admin execs’ absence in ‘gentleman’s deal’ probe

Medialdea and Lorenzana were present during the Tuesday hearing, saying that they failed to attend the previous meeting due to earlier scheduled engagements.  Furthermore, Medialdea said that Esperon would try to catch up.