Philippines says China wields audio recording to sow domestic division

PHILIPPINE COAST GUARD FILE PHOTO

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza Reporter and Kenneth Christiane L. Basilio

THE PHILIPPINES said on Thursday that China’s threat to release recording of an alleged deal with Manila over Second Thomas Shoal is aimed at sowing discord among its agencies and the Filipino nation.

Manila also called on diplomats to “strictly adhere” to a 1960s convention seeking respect for the laws and regulations of a receiving State.

“The DFA cautions against falling for false narratives,” said Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) Spokesperson Ma. Teresita Daza, days after China threatened to release a recording of a phone call between its diplomat and a Filipino general over a supposed “new model” for the South China Sea feature that falls within Manila’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

“Resorting to tactics such as releasing unverifiable recordings of supposed conversations with Philippine officials could demonstrate efforts to sow discord and confusion among Philippine agencies and the Filipino public,” said Ms. Daza.

She said diplomats have “a duty not to interfere in the internal affairs” of a receiving state, citing the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations.

In Congress, Manila Rep. Bienvenido M. Abante, Jr. said the information released by the Chinese Embassy based on alleged wiretapping of a conversation supports the need to investigate Chinese students studying in Cagayan province, citing such an action as a threat to national security.

“We must recognize that there is an ongoing disinformation campaign intended to sow doubt and disunity among our ranks,” Mr. Abante said.

“The Chinese government has tipped its hand and admitted that it may have the capacity to conduct illegal wiretapping operations in our country,” said the congressman. “It is in this context that we must carefully examine… Chinese nationals who… want to study in an area within close proximity of EDCA (Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement) sites.”

The Chinese Embassy in Manila last week said the Armed Forces of the Philippines Western Command and China “early this year” had agreed on a so-called new model for managing tensions at Second Thomas Shoal or Ayungin Shoal.

The agreement, according to the statement, was “approved by all key officials in the Philippine chain of command, including the Secretary of National Defense and the National Security Adviser.”

Philippine defense chief Gilberto C. Teodoro, Jr. recently said he had not allowed any contact between the Department of National Defense (DND) and the Chinese Embassy since the courtesy call of Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian a few days after he took office in July 2023.

“Claims on the alleged ‘new model’ arrangement to ease tension in the West Philippine Sea are nothing but another apparent disinformation campaign by the Chinese government. China’s claim is nothing more than smoke and mirrors,” said Senator Jose “Jinggoy” E. Estrada, chair of the Senate Committee on Defense.

“We will not be swayed by falsehoods. Their recent assertions are nothing more than a trap, designed to divert attention from their unfounded claims and aggressive actions,” he said.

Beijing’s coast guard ships backed by maritime militia vessels have been firing water cannons at Philippine vessels delivering supplies to BRP Sierra Madre, a Navy vessel that Manila grounded in Second Thomas Shoal in 1999 years after China’s seizure of Mischief Reef.

The shoal is located 240 kilometers (kms) off the coast of Palawan province and is about 900 kms from Hainan, the nearest major Chinese landmass.

Second Thomas Shoal was among the five features most frequented by patrols of the Chinese Coast Guard last year, according to the Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative.

In the House of Representatives, Isabela Rep. Faustino A. Dy V said Congress should increase the funding allocation for the country’s various defense agencies to improve their surveillance and protection capabilities of maritime features claimed by the Philippines.

Speaking in Filipino at a news briefing on Thursday, Mr. Dy said: “Budget season is coming up, we can lobby and we can fight to increase the funding for better surveillance, budget for the coast guard and other agencies that need support to do their mandates.”

Addressing the Chinese Embassy’s release of a conversation transcript purportedly between its official and an alleged Filipino military general, the congressman said he agreed with Mr. Teodoro that the supposed embassy official in that recorded phone conversation had violated Manila’s Anti-Wiretapping Law.

“Those responsible for wiretapping or recording the conversation, if it did happen, should be expelled or deported from our country,” said Mr. Dy.

Also present at the briefing, Party-list Rep. Jude A. Acidre said in Filipino: “I will leave it to the Armed Forces to investigate who’s culpable, or if there’s culpability on the part of the Filipino military official concerned.”

The Chinese embassy’s release of the purported conversation transcript indicates Beijing is desperate to manipulate public discourse over its encroachment of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, Mr. Acidre said. “This is an act of desperation to muddle the entire issue,” he said.

The supposed new model touted by China followed a revelation from former presidential spokesman Herminio L. Roque, Jr. in March that Mr. Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo R. Duterte, had entered into a gentleman’s agreement with China over the shoal.

Under the alleged agreement, the two nations supposedly agreed to keep the “status quo” in Second Thomas Shoal, which meant only basic supplies and not building materials would be delivered to the BRP Sierra Madre.

“Be vigilant against any underhanded tactics that may weaken our position,” Mr. Estrada told Filipino servicemen. “We must stand united in defense of our territorial rights, as our strength lies in our unity.”