Philippine defense chief urges probe into alleged South China Sea ‘deal’ recording

Manila accuses the Chinese embassy of violating the Philippines Anti-Wiretapping law if tape is real.
Jason Gutierrez
Philippine defense chief urges probe into alleged South China Sea ‘deal’ recording Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos (left), joined by Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr., speaks to reporters during a news conference at the Western Command in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Philippines, Aug. 10, 2023.
Eloisa Lopez/Reuters

The Philippine defense chief on Wednesday called for a probe into whether China violated wiretapping laws during an alleged phone conversation between a Chinese official and a senior Filipino military commander about a new bilateral arrangement over a contested South China Sea shoal.

The Chinese embassy in Manila released to selected news outlets what it described as a transcript of a call in January between Philippine Vice Adm. Alberto Carlos and an unidentified Chinese official, during which they allegedly agreed to a “new model” for resupply missions to Second Thomas (Ayungin) Shoal.

“If it is true that the Chinese embassy had a recording with someone from the Philippines, then they are admitting they violated the laws of the Republic of the Philippines, particularly the Anti-Wiretapping Law,” Philippine Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. told reporters.

“If it’s true the embassy did record it, they have also violated international relations and Philippine laws, because they failed to coordinate with the [Philippine] Department of Foreign Affairs and operated covertly, if this is true,” Teodoro added.

Manila’s anti-wiretapping law prohibits the unauthorized wiretapping and secret recording of private communications to protect the privacy rights of individuals.

Carlos serves as chief of the Philippine military’s Western Command (WESCOM), which oversees Manila’s defense of the Palawan and Kalayaan islands, including the disputed Spratly chain. He has filed for a leave of absence amid the controversy and has not replied to requests seeking comment.

The Philippine military designated Rear Adm. Alfonso Torres Jr. as acting WESCOM commander effective May 6.

“In this light, we are leaving it to the Department of Foreign Affairs to find out the truth because this is a clear violation of the laws of the Republic of the Philippines and that person [responsible for the recording] should be expelled,” Teodoro said.

The defense secretary said he had ordered security measures be strengthened amid alleged disinformation by foreign agents in the Philippines. 

Necessary steps would be taken by the defense department and the military to protect Philippine interests, he said. 

Only President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. in consultation with the foreign department, Teodoro said, can enter into a binding agreement when it comes to matters relating to the West Philippine Sea, the part of the South China Sea that Manila claims within its exclusive economic zone.

“The president has not given any cabinet official authority over this, that is why it is wrong for the Chinese Embassy officials to claim such,” he said. “I will repeat, if this is true that this [purported leak] came from the Chinese Embassy, then they are admitting that they violated the laws of the Republic of the Philippines.”

Meanwhile, military officials said they would not dignify the claim they had agreed to a “new model” for conduct in the disputed shoal.

“China’s claim of an audio recording allegedly between Vice Adm. Carlos and a Chinese diplomat does not merit significant concern as it appears to be a malign influence effort from the Chinese Communist Party (CCP),” Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Gen. Romeo Brawner Jr. said in a statement Wednesday.

“Transcripts can easily be fabricated, and audio recordings can be manufactured by using deep fakes. These reports only [aim] to serve as a distraction from the China Coast Guard’s ongoing aggressive behavior in the West Philippine Sea,” he said.

Philippine troops wave from the dilapidated BRP Sierra Madre anchored near Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) in the Spratly group of islands in the South China Sea, May 11, 2015. [Ritchie A. Tongo/Pool/Reuters]

Manila maintains the BRP Sierra Madre, a World War II ship deliberately grounded in the Ayungin Shoal in 1999, to serve as the country’s outpost in the contested region. 

In recent days, Chinese officials have claimed that Manila and Beijing agreed on a model for resupply missions to the Second Thomas Shoal “after multiple rounds of discussions through the diplomatic channel and the AFP WESCOM.”

“The Philippine military has made repeated confirmation[s] that the new model has been approved by all key officials in the Philippine chain of command, including the Secretary of National Defense and the National Security Adviser,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Lin Jian said during a press briefing on Monday.

Lin said that the Philippines had carried out one such mission on Feb. 2, “before abandoning it as well.”

Embassy silent

The Chinese Embassy in the Philippines was deluged by requests from journalists to confirm the alleged transcript of the phone call on Wednesday, but did not respond to those requests or to release the actual taped conversation.

“Yesterday, the Chinese Embassy in the Philippines released details about the relevant communication between the two sides. The facts are clear and backed by hard evidence that cannot be denied,” Lin said Wednesday.

“The Philippines has insisted on denying these objective facts and seeks to mislead the international community. This hurts its own credibility and puts peace and stability in the South China Sea in jeopardy,” Lin said. 

He did not provide more details about the alleged conversation.

Last month, President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. accused his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, of entering into “secret deals” with China over the sea dispute. Duterte had denied the accusations, but acknowledged that he and Chinese leader Xi Jinping agreed to maintain the “status quo” in the South China Sea to avoid escalation of tension. 

Senate investigation looming 

On Wednesday, Philippine opposition Sen. Risa Hontiveros, who has been vocal about China’s alleged harassment in the South China Sea, said Beijing appears to be waging information warfare. 

Hontiveros said Teodoro had already warned senators of China’s alleged tactic of “divide and conquer” to divert the public’s attention from “violent, aggressive and dangerous moves against [Philippine] vessels.”

She said Manila’s Senate foreign relations committee chaired by the president’s sister, Sen. Imee Marcos, could soon call a public hearing on the issue.

Hontiveros also said she wanted to hear Duterte explain at a future Senate inquiry whether concessions were made to China over the disputed waters. 

“We need to ask if a former president had the power to require future leaders who are the architects of our foreign policy to allow BRP Sierra Madre, a very important marker of our West Philippine Sea sovereignty, to just deteriorate,” Hontiveros said. 

Mark Navales in Manila contributed to this report.


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