Manila-Beijing row worsens as China yet to show evidence of ‘secret deal’

The Asian superpower has made such agreements before, but its latest claims may be a divide-and-conquer tactic, analysts say.
Camille Elemia
Manila-Beijing row worsens as China yet to show evidence of ‘secret deal’ Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos, chief of the Philippine military’s Western Command (left), speaks to the media with military chief Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr., in Palawan, Philippines, Aug. 10, 2023.
Eloisa Lopez/AFP

Manila’s row with Beijing has worsened in recent weeks, as China insists that the Philippines has violated their alleged secret deals and concessions on the South China Sea, but has not shown any evidence to back its claim.

For its part, the Philippines has consistently denied the existence of such deals or concessions, with some observers saying China’s assertion is part of its divide-and-conquer strategy, and other analysts noting that Beijing has a record of secret agreements that breach global regulations.

The recent controversy between the Philippines and China centers around an alleged secret recording Beijing’s embassy in Manila made of a phone conversation, and released what they said was its transcript to some media organizations.

The call, they said, was between a senior Filipino military official and a Chinese diplomat, during which Manila reportedly agreed on a new model for arranging notifications of resupply missions to Second Thomas (Ayungin) Shoal.

Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos, the senior Philippine military official in question, said Wednesday that he did have such a conversation with a Chinese diplomat but had not consented to its being recorded.

“I did not enter into any secret deals that will compromise the interests of our country … I have not compromised the country’s territorial integrity,” he said at a hearing in the Senate on Wednesday.

“I have not given up our sovereign rights and entitlement. I am a soldier for the Filipino.  I remain a loyal servant of the republic.”

Carlos had been replaced and put on forced leave at the general military headquarters after the controversy broke. The Philippine military did not explain why, only saying that his reassignment was not a punishment.

‘China has relied on such deals’

This development may not help ease Beijing-Manila tensions.

On Wednesday, China reiterated its claim that it had “solid evidence” these deals with the Philippines existed but did not say why it has not produced this so-called proof.

“Whether it’s [a] ‘gentlemen’s agreement,’ or … internal understandings, or the ‘new model’ reached between China and the Philippines on properly managing the situation in the South China Sea, they all have clear timelines and are supported by solid evidence,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Wednesday

“No one can deny their existence,” he insisted.

And China has relied on such deals which have worked in its favor in the past, analysts pointed out. 

“China is quite known for its preference for secretive deals that do not embody legitimate rules and norms of international relations,” Don McLain Gill, a Manila-based geopolitical analyst, told BenarNews on Monday.

He cited two examples: the 1963 secret territorial pact between Pakistan and China and the alleged secret deal between China and Cambodia that allowed the Chinese Navy to have an extended and exclusive access to Phnom Penh’s naval base.

Both China and Cambodia denied the secret agreements, of course, but Western officials and groups believed otherwise.

“Such deals favor China because while they are clouded in ambiguity, they still serve the strategic purpose of Beijing. However, such deals often put the other country in the hot seat,” said Gill, who’s also a lecturer at the De La Salle University.

‘Divide and conquer’

Antonio Carpio, a Philippine South China Sea expert, has another explanation he believes is behind the controversy.

Beijing’s claims about alleged internal agreements with Manila are meant to create divisions among Philippine officials, said Carpio, who is also a former Supreme Court justice.


The Philippine Coast Guard escorts Filipino fishing boats joining a convoy to Scarborough Shoal, May 15, 2024. [Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews]

“China will talk to the lower echelons and they’ll say, ‘These officials agreed with us,’ ” he told BenarNews in May, explaining Beijing’s alleged tactic.

“That is not the way [to do things]. That is very undiplomatic. You must go through the proper channels,” Carpio told BenarNews in an interview in early May.

Former President Rodrigo Duterte’s pro-China policy during his six-year tenure (2016-2022) had allowed, among other things, unofficial talks, verbal agreements and deals without official documents as proof, Carpio said. And Beijing may have thought it could continue that policy, he said. 

‘Duterte’s legacy’

Rommel Jude Ong, a retired Philippine Navy official, agreed with Carpio.

“We are dealing with the legacy of Duterte's foreign policy posture,” Ong told BenarNews.

“The Chinese Communist Party may be using informal concessions made by the previous administration as leverage and to compel the [current] government to conform to these practices.” 

One example is from 2021 when, according to China, it entered into a deal with the Duterte administration on the rusty ship Manila uses as its base on Second Thomas Shoal.

China says Manila agreed not to repair or build structures on the ship and in return, provided Beijing’s non-interference when the Philippines sends troops and supplies to the military outpost.

The former Philippines president first denied then admitted entering into a verbal agreement with Beijing on this issue.

A boat’s crew members and volunteers on a Filipino civilian convoy sleep on their way back to Subic in Zambales province in the Philippines, after sailing near Scarborough Shoal, May 16, 2024. [Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews]

One security analyst said that governments sometimes enter into behind-the-scenes deals to help settle disputes without pressure from their domestic audiences.

“Governments … avoid making the impression of compromising their countries’ positions in disputed spaces by entering into such agreements,” Lucio Pitlo III, an analyst with the Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation, told BenarNews.

“But exposing such deals may put Beijing in a difficult spot at home and may force them to take a more hardline and uncompromising stance so as not to appear weak in their domestic public.”

Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei, and Taiwan also have overlapping claims in the South China Sea.


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