By Priam Nepomuceno

SIMULATION. BRP Ramon Alcaraz officers conduct flight quarters procedure before takeoff of the Philippine Navy AW-109 helicopter. Naval ships participating in the multilateral maritime exercise of the 39th “Balikatan” successfully conducted a simulated replenishment at sea on Friday (April 26, 2024) in Palawan waters. (Photo courtesy of Western Command)

MANILA – The Department of National Defense (DND) has no knowledge of alleged internal agreements with China on the Ayungin Shoal.

In a statement on Saturday, Defense Secretary Gilberto Teodoro Jr. disputed the claims of Chinese officials on two new deals with the Philippines last year to lessen tensions on the disputed territory.

“The DND is not aware of, nor is it a party to, any internal agreement with China on Ayungin Shoal since President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. took office,” Teodoro said.

The Ayungin Shoal is a submerged reef in Spratly Islands in the South China Sea (SCS).

Teodoro said the DND has not had any contact with any Chinese government officials since last year.

“This is all a part of the Chinese propaganda effort to steer the Filipino people’s attention away from the real issue and cause of the tensions in the West Philippine Sea, which is China’s obstinate refusal to adhere to UNCLOS, which they are a signatory to,” he added.

UNCLOS or the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea recognizes the Philippine jurisdiction in the SCS.

“We will never enter into any agreement that will compromise our sovereignty and sovereign rights under the UNCLOS, as affirmed by the 2016 Arbitral Ruling,” Teodoro said.

National Security Adviser Eduardo Año previously said China must show proof of the Philippines’ alleged deal with China to keep the status quo in the WPS.

A gentlemen’s agreement between former president Rodrigo R. Duterte and Chinese President Xi Jinping, if any, is “constitutionally void,” according to House of Representatives Deputy Majority Leader Neptali Gonzales II because it must be enshrined in a treaty and submitted to the Senate for ratification before it can take effect.

Also on Saturday, the Western Command (Wescom) confirmed that a People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) vessel was spotted shadowing the flotilla participating in the maritime exercise (MME) of the 39th Exercise Balikatan.

“(There is a) a presence of a CN (Chinese) vessel in the vicinity of our BK conducting the MME. We have reported one PLAN vessel with bow number 793 in the vicinity,” Wescom spokesperson Captain Ariel Joseph Coloma said in a message to reporters.

The MME in Palawan waters on Friday was led by BRP Ramon Alcaraz (PS-16), with participation from (the French Navy’s) FS Vendemiaire (FFH-734), BRP Davao Del Sur (LD-602), and USS Harpers Ferry (LSD-49), according to a statement by Combined Joint Information Bureau chief Lt. Col. John Paul Salgado.

RAS is critical for maintaining operational readiness and extending the operational range of naval fleets.

It ensures naval vessels can be resupplied at sea, allowing them to remain operational without frequent port visits.

“During the exercise, BRP Ramon Alcaraz directed the participating units with tactical messages, instructing them to approach from her portside at a distance of no less than 80 yards. BRP Davao Del Sur was the first to approach, followed by FS Vendemiaire and USS Harpers Ferry,” Salgado said.

He added that a continuation of cross deck-landing exercise was also conducted involving BRP Ramon Alcaraz BRP Davao Del Sur, USS Harpers Ferry, and a Philippine Navy AW-109 helicopter (NH-434).

The exercises tested the coordination and precision required for helicopter landings on different vessels, a vital skill in complex naval operations.

“Balikatan” is aimed at enhancing the participating naval forces’ interoperability. It is scheduled to end April 29. (PNA)