Philippines-China wiretapping row hits stalemate as Filipino commander denies making ‘new deal’


The Philippine Navy’s Vice-Admiral Alberto Carlos was relieved of his post after the wiretapping scandal broke in early May. - PHOTO: AFP

MANILA (The Straits Times/ANN): A senior Philippine Navy commander embroiled in an alleged wiretapped conversation with a Chinese diplomat has denied forging a so-called “new deal” with Beijing to de-escalate tensions over a disputed shoal in the South China Sea.

Vice-Admiral Alberto Carlos on May 22 faced a Philippine Senate committee that kicked off an investigation into the Chinese Embassy’s alleged recording of a phone call, made in early January, between the senior Filipino military official and a Chinese military attache whom Mr Carlos identified only as “Colonel Li”.

“I did not forge any agreement at the level and magnitude that would bind our two countries for the long term and redefine foreign policy,” said Mr Carlos under oath before senators.

“I have not compromised the country’s territorial integrity. I have not given up our sovereign rights and entitlements. I am a soldier for the Filipino,” he added.

The hearing was suspended without any revelations of what was discussed during the alleged wiretapped conversation. Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian was also a no-show during the hearing.

But a senior counsel for the Philippine Department of Justice said “there indeed was wiretapping”, which would violate domestic laws, while a senator presiding over the probe proposed expelling the Chinese diplomat involved.

Mr Carlos had been the chief of the Philippine military’s Western Command, which has jurisdiction over the eastern parts of the South China Sea that lie within the country’s exclusive economic zone. Manila calls this the West Philippine Sea, but Beijing is also claiming it as its own, along with most of the South China Sea.

Mr Carlos was relieved of his post after the wiretapping scandal broke in early May.

The Manila Bulletin and The Manila Times released separate reports on May 7 and May 8, respectively, quoting unnamed Chinese diplomatic sources as saying that Beijing has an audio recording and transcript of the alleged phone call. Mr Carlos allegedly agreed to a “new model” of settling the dispute over the Second Thomas Shoal.

The Philippines in 1999 grounded a World War II-era warship at this shoal to serve as its remote military outpost in the disputed waterway. In past months, China Coast Guard vessels have been firing water cannon at Philippine ships sending supplies to troops stationed there.

Mr Carlos confirmed during the Senate hearing that Col Li had called him in January. He noted that the call lasted only three to five minutes, contrary to Chinese officials’ claims that the conversation was 12 minutes long.

He said the conversation was “very informal” and that they “explored ways to reduce tensions” over Manila’s resupply missions to the shoal. “The terms ‘common understanding’, ‘new model’ were not part of our conversation.”

Philippine Defence Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr and Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff Romeo Brawner Jr denied authorising any new deal with China on de-escalating tensions at the disputed shoal. Still, Mr Carlos was replaced as Western Command chief on May 16 in what Mr Teodoro described as an “administrative decision”. He did not elaborate.

National Security Adviser Eduardo Ano has accused China of operating malign influence and interference operations in the country. He called for the Chinese diplomats involved in the wiretapping to be expelled from the Philippines.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said in a Beijing press conference on May 22 that Mr Carlos’ dismissal proves Manila and Beijing did reach an agreement.

“The Philippines’ persistent denial and breach of commitment – and blaming it all on China – shows exactly their guilty conscience and who is acting in bad faith, infringing the other side’s sovereignty and making provocations on Ren’ai Jiao,” he said, using Beijing’s term for the disputed shoal.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr has already ordered law enforcement agencies to probe the leaked phone recording, coinciding with the Senate’s own investigation.

Upon hearing Mr Carlos’ sworn testimony during the Senate hearing, Senior State Counsel Fretti Ganchoon of the Department of Justice told senators “there indeed was wiretapping” involved.

“The mere act of having it tapped is a violation of Philippine laws,” said Senator Francis Tolentino, who presided over the hearing. He floated the proposal to expel the Chinese diplomats involved in the leaked phone conversation.

He said Manila and Beijing are both parties to the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Affairs, which bars diplomats from interfering with another country’s internal affairs.

“Isn’t interference in the internal affairs of the Philippines violative of the Vienna Convention and would necessitate the declaration of a diplomat as persona non grata?” Mr Tolentino said.

The hearing, however, was suspended without revealing other details about the controversial phone call. Mr Tolentino said another hearing would be called at a later date but did not say when.

There is a “stalemate” now in the battle of narratives between the Philippines and China over their heated territorial dispute, maritime security expert Collin Koh of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore told ST.

“Even with the current exchanges over the so-called new model or secret deal, I don’t think we are going to see any change in the texture of how China and the Philippines deal with each other. So far, both continue to show no signs of rolling back,” said Dr Koh.

Whatever took place in the phone conversation also “means nothing” for Manila’s current strategy against Beijing, as only the president can officially execute agreements with other states, according to maritime security expert Don McLain Gill from De La Salle University in Manila.

Mr Gill said the Marcos government would have the right to expel Chinese officials should investigations prove later on that the conversation with Mr Carlos had been wiretapped.

“No foreign dignitary on Philippine soil is free from the repercussions of breaking Philippine laws, especially if it concerns national security,” he said. - The Straits Times/ANN

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Philippines , China , Wire-Tapping Scandal

   

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