China Threatens to Release Audio of Secret Deal With Philippines

(Bloomberg) -- China may soon release audio of a purported phone call with a Philippine military official that Beijing claims is evidence of an agreement over disputed territory in the South China Sea, according to Chinese officials.

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In the alleged Jan. 3 phone call, Vice Admiral Alberto Carlos, head of the Philippine military’s Western Command, agrees to a “new model” in handling resupply missions to the Philippine-occupied Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea, according to a transcript provided by Chinese officials to Bloomberg News.

The transcript may be released to the public within days, said the officials, who asked not to be identified because they weren’t authorized to speak on the record.

The Chinese statements marked the latest in a war of words between China on the one side and the Philippines and the US on the other over disputed parts of the South China Sea. Tensions have escalated in recent months, with Chinese ships using water cannons to repeatedly blast Philippine vessels trying to supply troops stationed on the Sierra Madre, a marooned World War II-era ship in the Second Thomas Shoal.

The US and the Philippines have repeatedly disputed Beijing’s version of events in the South China Sea, while also accusing China of spreading misinformation.

China’s Foreign Ministry has said in recent days that discussions on the “new model” were held this year with the Philippine military’s Western Command, and it had been approved by officials up the chain of command, including by Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. and National Security Adviser Eduardo Ano. They both denied Beijing’s statements over the weekend.

The transcript of the purported call cited Carlos saying that Teodoro, Ano, and the chief of staff of the Armed Forces, General Romeo Brawner, had signed off on the agreement. The name of one Philippine official – listed ahead of the others – was redacted from the transcript. Chinese officials declined to identify that person.

Asked Tuesday about China’s claims to have an audio of a phone call with Carlos, Teodoro said he didn’t know anything about it.

“No one except the president, through the Department of Foreign Affairs, is authorized to enter into any agreement regarding any international issue,” Teodoro said by phone. “I don’t know where the Chinese are coming from.”

Carlos didn’t answer repeated calls to his mobile phone, which appeared to be turned off. The Philippine military said earlier on Tuesday that he filed for a leave of absence, adding that it wasn’t connected to China’s claim that the Western Command chief entered into an agreement with Beijing.

“We cannot comment on this yet because we haven’t seen the transcript,” Philippine military spokeswoman Colonel Francel Margareth Padilla said in a mobile phone message Tuesday, when asked about the Chinese claims. “And is the transcript authentic or is it fabricated? The telephone conversation might be a deep fake.”

Brawner, who was also identified by Carlos in the transcript, didn’t reply to messages seeking comment.

“As we mentioned in our last statement Saturday, we have no more comment on this issue,” National Security Council spokesman Jonathan Malaya said Tuesday via text message. “CHN can go ahead for all we care.”

The Chinese officials said the transcript covered two minutes of audio and declined to provide more information on what they said was a 12-minute call.

In the purported transcript, Carlos agrees to notify the Chinese two days in advance of any resupply missions and to transport only food, water and humanitarian goods to the Sierra Madre.

Both sides agreed to send one coast guard vessel and one civilian ship to each resupply, the officials said, adding that the Philippines had broken all three provisions of the deal.

China is publicizing the “new model” almost a month after President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said he was “horrified” to learn that his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte entered into a “gentleman’s agreement” with China that effectively had the same terms, preventing Manila from bringing construction materials to the Sierra Madre.

The Philippines’ Department of Foreign Affairs on Tuesday said that only President Marcos can authorize agreements on the South China Sea. “The DFA can confirm that no cabinet-level official of the administration has agreed to any Chinese proposal pertaining to the Ayungin Shoal,” it said, using the local name for the Second Thomas Shoal.

--With assistance from Cliff Venzon.

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