May 21, 2024 People's Journal 95 views

KEY members of the House of Representatives yesterday criticized former President Rodrigo Duterte and his administration for choosing to pursue a status quo or “walang galawan” policy on Ayungin Shoal despite the country’s July 2016 arbitral ruling that the area is part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

They criticized the Duterte government after Duterte’s executive secretary Salvador Medialdea told them that they opted to respect a supposed commitment made by former defense secretary Voltaire Gazmin to then Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing that only food and water would be delivered to Filipino soldiers stationed in an old navy vessel grounded in Ayungin and that no repairs would be undertaken.

However, the former Palace official could not present any proof of the alleged Gazmin promise, while Gazmin’s successor, Delfin Lorenzana said he was not aware of it.

A Department of Foreign Affairs representative said she was not aware of such commitment.

Medialdea, Lorenzana and another Duterte official, former national security adviser Hermogenes Esperon gave their testimonies to the House committee on national defense and security and the special committee on the West Philippine Sea chaired by Mandaluyong City Rep. Neptali “Boyet” Gonzales II.

Iloilo Rep. Raul Tupas, defense committee vice chairman, and Gonzales jointly presided over the inquiry prompted by a resolution and a privilege speech asking the House to investigate the alleged secret agreement between Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping on Ayungin Shoal.

Gonzales said assuming the Gazmin promise really existed, the fact remained that former President Duterte did not disturb the status quo in Ayungin even after the Philippines won its case in the Permanent Court of Arbitration on July 12, 2016, 12 days after he assumed the presidency.

“The arbitral court declared that Ayungin was ours, that we have sovereign rights over that area. We could have done what we wanted to do there – in fact, we could do anything – but we did not,” he said.

Rep. Ramon Rodrigo Gutierrez of 1-RIDER Party-list said the Duterte administration’s decision to preserve the then state of affairs in Ayungin during Duterte’s term from 2016 to 2022 came as a “shocking surprise” to him.

He said less than a month into office, the former president was already aware of the country’s arbitral victory over disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea, including Scarborough Shoal, Mischief Reef and Ayungin Shoal.

“Pero, hindi nila binago ang status quo,” he said.

Gutierrez informed his colleagues and the committees’ resource persons that he searched the internet and found that the alleged Gazmin promise did not exist.

“My initial finding is that the commitment was not to build new structures,” he said.

He stressed that the “status quo” policy of the Duterte administration therefore stood on “shaky foundation.”

Responding to questions from committee members, Medialdea said he heard about the supposed Gazmin promise when he made an “off the cup” query from one official whose name he could not remember.

On the other hand, Lorenza said Gazmin “transmitted no such thing to me when he briefed me.”

He said despite Duterte’s status quo policy on Ayungin, the Philippine Navy started repairing “our soldiers housing quarters in BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin to make them comfortable.”

“That’s when the Chinese Coast Guard started blasting us with their water cannons. They thought we were trying to strengthen BRP Sierra Madre,” he said.

For her part, Rep. France Castro of ACT Teachers Party-list said the statements of Medialdea, Lorenzana and Esperon that no gentleman’s agreement was made on Ayungin Shoal “prove that all those assertions by China that such an agreement existed are all lies.”

To give Gazmin a chance to clarify things, upon Castro’s motion, the two committees decided to invite him to its next hearing.

The hearing panels later suspended its public hearing and opted to hold a closed-door session to listen to testimonies on issues Tupas said could “border on national security.”

The Tupas and Gonzales committees have also invited former Duterte spokesman Harry Roque, who has claimed Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping really had a secret deal on Ayungin.