Stance should have changed after Hague ruling, says lawmaker

1-Rider party-list Rep. Ramon Rodrigo Gutierrez

MANILA, Philippines — A lawmaker believes that former president Rodrigo Duterte’s administration should have changed its stance on the status quo commitment with China on the Ayungin Shoal, as the Philippines won the arbitration case on the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

Rep. Ramon Rodrigo Gutierrez of 1-Rider party-list, said this on Tuesday in response to former executive secretary Salvador Medialdea, who admitted that they decided to keep the commitment that only food and water will be supplied to troops stationed at Ayungin.

During the House of Representatives’ committee on national defense and security and the committee on the West Philippine Sea hearing on the alleged gentleman’s agreement between Duterte and China, Medialdea—who was executive secretary when Duterte was in office—said that the status quo commitment was made in 2013, under former president Benigno Aquino III.

READ: Medialdea: Ayungin status quo deal started in 2013 under Gazmin

Change of stance

But Gutierrez believes that stance should have changed because it now holds the arbitral ruling which invalidated China’s nine-dash line claim—adding that the Aquino administration’s moves were done when the Philippines still did not have clear-cut ownership of the WPS.

“Personally, for this representation, the commitment, if any, first and foremost, in 2013, was premised on the fact that we still did not have an arbitration ruling. And in 2016, when the arbitration ruling came out, explicitly saying that we have exclusive sovereign rights over the exclusive economic zone, the status quo was still not changed,” Gutierrez said.

READ: China raises concerns over PH’s reported development plans on Ayungin Shoal

“Because I think if that were the case, po no, dapat we would have postured our foreign policy, anchored on the PCA (Permanent Court of Arbitration) ruling,” he added.

Early into the hearing, Medialdea said that the status quo commitment was supposedly given by former Defense secretary Voltaire Gazmin to former Chinese ambassador to the Philippines Ma Keqing.

Medialdea said he knew of the commitment when he asked about the status of Ayungin Shoal, in anticipation of the PCA decision in 2016—which came out just 12 days after Duterte was sworn into office.

The PCA case was filed during Aquino’s term.

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

‘2013 commitment’

Medialdea said the short time between Duterte taking office and the PCA decision coming out meant that they had to keep the supposed 2013 commitment made by Gazmin.

“Upon finding out that there was this commitment, although not yet official, it was just off the cuff query, from what we’ve got, regarding, because this was when the PCA (Permanent Court of Arbitration) ruling was new, what was the stance that was adopted by the (Duterte) administration? Did we continue to have supply missions?” Gutierrez asked.

“I know that there was a continuation because that was respective. We had to follow that. And for us to move on, remember, we just assumed, we assumed office 12 days earlier, no?  We do not know if this decision will be good for us. Remember, we haven’t received a copy of the decision at the time,” Medialdea replied.

“So, at the time, there was no gentleman’s agreement, the testimony, the narration is, showing that there was no gentleman’s agreement. However, we maintained the position of status quo to supposedly refrain from repairing,” Gutierrez fired back.

The lawmaker was referring to China’s insistence that BRP Sierra Madre—a Navy vessel deliberately ran aground Ayungin Shoal in 1999, which now doubles as a military outpost in the WPS—should not be repaired.

Gutierrez asked that the Department of Foreign Affairs identify if there was indeed a commitment in 2013 from Gazmin—who was also invited for the panels’ next hearing.

Gazmin or the Aquino administration’s camp have not released any statement to confirm or deny the supposed commitment, but it could be remembered that in May 2013, China raised its concerns over the Philippines’ reported plans of establishing structures on Ayungin Shoal.

Brief meeting

The issue was mentioned during a brief meeting between Gazmin and Ma on the sidelines of the commemoration of the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers at Camp Aguinaldo.

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

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

Medialdea at the hearing also clarified 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 said that Duterte and Xi had eight meetings from October 2016 to 2019—all of which, Duterte was accompanied by his Foreign Affairs secretaries.