Philippine naval commander takes leave amid alleged South China Sea deal

The Philippine military denies it is linked to an alleged agreement between Manila and Beijing over Second Thomas (Ayungin) Shoal.
Camille Elemia
Philippine naval commander takes leave amid alleged South China Sea deal Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos, chief of the Philippine military’s Western Command, speaks during an interview with reporters at a port in Palawan, Philippines, March 6, 2024.
Jam Sta Rosa/AFP

UPDATED at 12:05 p.m. ET on 05-08-2024

The military commander who oversees most Philippine-claimed territories in the South China Sea took a leave of absence days after Beijing claimed that his regional command and other government agencies had agreed with it on a “new model” for resupply missions to a contested shoal.

Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos, chief of the Western Command (WESCOM), filed for a personal leave, but it had no connection to the controversy focused on maritime missions to a Philippine outpost at Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal), according to a military spokeswoman.

“Let’s respect his decision. It is an inherent right of every individual to go on leave for whatever reasons,” Col. France Margareth Padilla told reporters on Tuesday. 

Carlos will return to his post after his personal leave, Padilla said, although it was not clear when Carlos had filed for leave. Carlos did not immediately respond to requests for comment from BenarNews.

On May 4, the military designated Rear Adm. Alfonso Torres Jr. as the acting WESCOM commander, effective May 6. Torres will also continue to handle his duties as commander of the Naval Education and Training Command in San Antonio, Zambales province, according to Padilla.

The Department of National Defense said it had no information to share on the matter. 

WESCOM oversees Manila’s defense of the Palawan and Kalayaan islands – including the disputed Spratly chain.

Second Thomas Shoal is claimed by the Philippines, China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. In 1999, Manila deliberately grounded an old navy ship, BRP Sierra Madre, to serve as its military outpost at the shoal.  

The Philippines regularly dispatches boats to the Sierra Madre to deliver fresh supplies to the military personnel who are stationed aboard it.

No deal

In recent days, China claimed that Manila and Beijing had agreed on a model for resupply missions to the Second Thomas Shoal “after multiple rounds of discussions through the diplomatic channel and the AFP WESCOM.”

“The Philippine military has made repeated confirmation[s] that the new model has been approved by all key officials in the Philippine chain of command, including the Secretary of National Defense and the National Security Adviser,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Lin Jian said during a press briefing on Monday.

Lin said that the Philippines had carried out one resupply mission under this new model on Feb. 2 “before abandoning it as well.”

But the Philippines’ defense and foreign affairs departments, as well as the National Security Council, denied having struck such a deal with Beijing on Second Thomas Shoal.

Philippine coast guard personnel and journalists sail on a rigid inflatable boat (left) as they head back after filming the BRP Sierra Madre, anchored at Second Thomas Shoal in disputed waters of the South China Sea, Nov. 10, 2023. [Jam Sta Rosa/AFP]

“The [Department of Foreign Affairs] wishes to emphasize that only the President of the Republic of the Philippines can approve or authorize agreements entered into by the Philippine government on matters pertaining to the West Philippine Sea and the South China Sea,” the agency said in a statement on Tuesday.

The West Philippine Sea is how Manila refers to South China Sea waters that lie within its exclusive economic zone. 

The department “can confirm that no cabinet-level official of the Marcos administration has agreed to any proposal pertaining to the Ayungin Shoal. As far as the Philippine government is concerned, no such document, record, or deal exists, as purported by the Chinese Embassy,” it said.

Jonathan Malaya, assistant director general at the Philippine National Security Council, said there was no reason to probe Carlos over China’s alleged deal with his military command. Carlos, he added, was a decorated officer with the Philippine Navy. 

“I don’t think there is any cause for the investigation because this narrative coming from China is simply, you know, there to create dissent and sow disinformation to our fellow Filipinos,” Malaya said in a televised briefing on Monday.

Duterte-Xi deal on Scarborough Shoal

There were other informal or undocumented deals, according to China.

On May 4, a spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Manila said Beijing had entered into an unwritten 2016 deal with former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, allowing small-scale fishing around Scarborough Shoal – another disputed area in the South China Sea – while restricting entry of government ships and planes within 12 nautical miles of the resource-rich shoal.

No less than Duterte himself alluded to this in October 2016 after returning from his state visit to China. Duterte said that he and Chinese President Xi Jinping had discussed Filipinos’ fishing rights in the Scarborough Shoal, which has been under China’s effective control since 2012. He, however, refused to give details because the meeting was confidential.

In 2022, fishermen told BenarNews that they were able to move more freely – although still under the watchful eyes of the China Coast Guard – near the shoal during the Duterte administration.

The Chinese Embassy in Manila said that the Philippines had abided with the deal for several years until the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. disrupted the arrangement.

Marcos Jr. earlier denied knowing of any secret arrangements with China on the West Philippine Sea and said he would seek clarification from officials of the Duterte administration.

Jay Tarriela, the Philippine Coast Guard spokesperson for the South China Sea, also denied the existence of an unwritten deal under the Marcos administration.

“Let us not be influenced by their fabricated stories once again, which aim to confuse the Filipino people and divert the public discourse from the real issue of their harassment and provocative actions in Bajo De Masinloc,” he said, referring to Scarborough Shoal.

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to show that one resupply mission under this new model occurred earlier this year, on Feb. 2.


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