Breaking the gentleman’s agreement is ungentlemanly
Published: May 07, 2024 10:26 PM
Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

On the calm South China Sea scattered with uninhabited shoals and reefs, cargo vessels loaded with containers move about every day. The tranquil waters host a vibrant array of marine species and sustain dynamic international trade and commerce, connecting regional countries with the outside world. 

On March 23, a supply vessel and two Coast Guard vessels of the Philippines broke the peace and tranquility as they intruded into the adjacent waters of Ren'ai Jiao, a shoal that has long been China's territory. They were heading toward the shoal in the name of resupplying necessities to a rusty warship which was illegally grounded there by the Philippines 25 years ago and is still garrisoned with troops. Ignoring the frequent reminders and restrained measures of China Coast Guard, the Philippine ship was determined to reach the shoal, but failed.

A drama full of crafty deception

Videos have shown that the supply vessel was actually carrying construction materials not food. The apparent purpose was to repair and reinforce the grounded warship, so that it could be some sort of outpost and give the Philippines a de facto permanent presence on Ren'ai Jiao. 

What's more intriguing is that on board the vessels were also Philippine journalists and media representatives from third countries busy taking footage. The "fruits of their labor," as past experience shows, are usually stories about how China was purportedly "intimidating smaller countries." 

But they did not realize that broadcasting the whole scripted drama to the world only produced proof of how the Philippines breaks promises and plays the victim.

A commitment never fulfilled

A man is only as good as his word. The same also holds true for a nation. In 1999 the Philippines made a promise to China that it would tow away its "accidentally" grounded warship, not reinforce the vessel, and inform China in advance of its resupply plans. China, out of humanitarian consideration and with patience and goodwill, has made special arrangements for Philippine vessels sending living necessities so that the Philippines can fulfill its commitment and tow away the warship one day. Once a commitment is made, either by an individual or by an authority, it has a binding force. To honor the commitment is the easiest and best way to win respect. So simple a logic as it is, but some just wouldn't get it right.  

Besides the bilateral agreement, countries in the region also have a consensus. It is clearly stipulated in Article 5 of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC), jointly signed by China and ASEAN countries in 2002, that "the Parties undertake to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that would complicate or escalate disputes and affect peace and stability including, among others, refraining from action of inhabiting on the presently uninhabited islands, reefs, shoals, cays, and other features and to handle their differences in a constructive manner." By acting in the opposite way, the Philippines went back on its words to all the other parties to the DOC and turned out to be untrustworthy in the eyes of its neighbors. 

A self-defeating game

It seems that the Philippines does not care about trust from its neighbors. Despite concerns and criticisms from neighboring countries, President Marcos met with President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Kishida Fumio to announce a military exercise among other things at the summit, which has created tensions in the region and public concern in the Philippines itself. Quite a lot of Filipinos oppose the increase of US military presence in the country and regard it as endangering the Philippines' efforts to pursue neutrality.

Keeping diplomatic independence has long been regarded as a matter of national dignity by the Philippine people. However, it's pathetic that the Philippine government is eager to turn itself from a dignified, independent nation into a pawn of the US, its former colonizer, and a potential ally of Japan, its erstwhile enemy which committed crimes against the Philippine people during World War II. As an old Chinese saying goes, "Those who like to go to war will perish; those who forget war will be in danger." Apparently, the US wants the Philippines to go to war and Japan wants it to forget war. Then where has the Philippines' neutrality gone?

For certain members of the international community, going back on one's own words and denying existing agreements with others may seem trivial or even a habit. However, this behavior will only result in losing respect and facing protest and friction from others. It is not wise to turn a small problem, which should have been solved successfully between gentlemen, into big trouble. It is a miscalculation for the Philippines to try to gain some privilege in the manner of a rogue. And it is more than stupid to try to bring in an eagle so that it could prey on those living in the region.

The author is a commentator on international affairs, writing regularly for Xinhua News, Global Times, China Daily, CGTN etc. He can be reached at xinping604@gmail.com