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Roque: Xi, Duterte agreed to keep West Philippines Sea status quo

MANILA, Philippines —  The Philippines under former president Rodrigo Duterte had a “gentleman’s agreement” with China to keep the status quo in the West Philippine Sea, a former Cabinet official said yesterday, as fresh tensions surround the WPS due to recent incursions by Beijing that targeted a Filipino resupply mission and a research team.

Harry Roque, who served as presidential spokesman during the Duterte administration, said the deal covered the entire disputed area for both the Philippines and China.

He clarified that the agreement did not cover the removal of the BRP Sierra Madre, the rusty ship grounded at Ayungin Shoal since 1999 that serves as a Philippine Navy outpost.

“Yes to status quo. No to removal of (BRP Sierra Madre in) Ayungin,” Roque said in a text message, when asked to confirm reports quoting him as saying that Duterte had a gentleman’s agreement with China on keeping the status quo in the West Philippine Sea.

“No specific agreement on Ayungin,” he added.

In 2017, then defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana told members of the House of Representatives that a “modus vivendi” – an arrangement between two parties with different views – on the West Philippine Sea row was brokered by former foreign affairs secretary Alan Cayetano.

He explained that under the deal, China would neither occupy new features in the South China Sea nor build structures in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, a traditional fishing ground off Zambales.

In the same year, Cayetano said Duterte was trying to ease tensions over the maritime row through the status quo.

Roque said the previous administration’s agreement with China was not in writing and cannot bind President Marcos.

“This (administration) must come up with its own agreement if it thinks that Duterte’s policy was not effective,” the former presidential spokesman said.

“Personally, Duterte enabled friendly relations and enabled us to advance the Philippines’ interest in terms of investment and trade. (It) certainly minimized water cannon incidents,” he added.

In an interview with news website Politko, Roque said what was agreed upon was there would be no further improvements and that only water and food would be sent to