Second Thomas Shoal crisis: A Duterte legacy | Inquirer Opinion
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Second Thomas Shoal crisis: A Duterte legacy

It’s not a secret deal,” former presidential spokesman Harry Roque claimed in a particularly revealing interview, referring to the so-called “gentlemen’s agreement” between the Duterte administration and China not to fortify Philippine position in the Second Thomas Shoal. “It was made public by former foreign affairs secretary Alan Cayetano, that their agreement was to maintain the status quo—no one will move and no conduct of any improvements [over the shoal] so there will be no problem,” he added, effectively backing Beijing’s claims of an alleged prior deal over the contested shoal.

Interestingly, no other key ally of the former president has confirmed the existence of such an agreement. As usual, Dutertes, who never run out of unsolicited opinions on every matter in the universe except Beijing’s aggressive actions as well as their cronies have been deafeningly silent on the latest round of tensions in the West Philippine Sea, which has led to the injury of several Philippine servicemen.

In many ways, China seems to have run out of ideas after failing to impose its will in the disputed waters, thus its decision to gradually enter the darkest shade of its “gray zone” strategy—if not adopt an entirely new genre of coercive action right in the middle of gray zone and armed attack.

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As usual, however, Duterte’s henchmen such as Sen. Ronald dela Rosa were “clueless” about Roque’s claims. In fact, Dela Rosa, who managed to catapult himself to the highest chamber of the land on the back of Duterte’s popularity and his own antics, was clueless about how to deal with the crisis in the West Philippine Sea. Period!

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“What should we do about it? I don’t know anymore what should be done,” Dela Rosa lamented in his latest vacuous intervention on the most pressing matter of national security. No wonder why many astute observers think this is the “worst ever Senate” in Philippine history, even if things could get even funnier come the 2025 elections.

Meanwhile, his fellow senator, Cayetano, is yet to provide any detailed explanation of the sensational claim by a former colleague in the Duterte Cabinet. To be fair, Cayetano was the same foreign secretary who, despite all his frailties, made the Duterte administration’s “redlines” in the West Philippine Sea crystal clear.

In particular, Cayetano unveiled our “Three No’s” policy, namely, (1) no Chinese reclamation and direct occupation of Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal); (2) no unilateral Chinese development of oil and gas resources in the Recto Bank (Reed Bank); and, most notably, (3) no forcible expulsion of Philippine troops stationed over the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal).

“[I]f we lost a single island during Duterte’s time, I will pack my bags, go home,” Cayetano declared at the height of West Philippine Sea tensions during his short tenure at the helm of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

But the “gentlemen’s agreement,” which was flatly rejected by the DFA in an official statement in March, would have been tantamount to surrendering the Second Thomas Shoal. After all, any thinking person and nominal patriot would know that the then-sinking BRP Sierra Madre—now significantly refurbished—was our last and only direct means of preventing Chinese occupation of yet another feature within our exclusive economic zone.

We clearly need a proper investigation by the government and the Senate—or whoever competent folk left there—to verify the veracity of this “gentlemen’s agreement”—and, accordingly, assess whether our national interest was compromised by the former administration. But we shouldn’t miss the bigger picture: what’s clear is that Duterte’s years-long strategic subservience in the West Philippine Sea largely explains China’s self-entitled and hubristic “Karen Diplomacy.”

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Lest we forget, our key neighbors, namely Vietnam, Malaysia, and Indonesia, vigorously pushed back against China’s excessive claims during Duterte’s tenure. Shortly before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, Malaysia unilaterally drilled for energy resources in Beijing-claimed waters, while Indonesian President Joko Widodo personally visited the North Natuna Sea area to warn China against claiming Indonesia’s waters and resources.

As for Vietnam, they have been standing up to China’s bullying for a thousand years. And what on earth did Duterte do during those years, other than kowtow and beg for China’s “love,” “protection,” and “mercy”?

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