Philippine military chief accuses China of 'malign influence effort'

FILE PHOTO: Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff visits Western Command in charge of parts of South China Sea

MANILA (Reuters) - The Philippines' military chief accused China of a "malign influence effort" on Wednesday, after a local newspaper reported a Filipino vice admiral had made a deal with Beijing to de-escalate tensions in the South China Sea.

The Manila Times published what it said was a transcript of a phone conversation during which it said a Philippine admiral had agreed to China's proposal of a "new model", where the Philippines would use fewer vessels in resupply missions to troops at the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, and notify Beijing about missions in advance.

Reuters has not heard the reported phone conversation and could not verify the contents of the published transcript. The Manila Times said the conversation had taken place in January and the transcript was provided by a "ranking Chinese official", which it did not name.

The shoal has been a flashpoint for a series of heated confrontations between China's coast guard and Philippine vessels in the past year, straining ties between the two neighbours. The Philippines has refused to heed China's calls to steer clear of the area.

"China's claim of an audio recording ... does not merit significant concern as it appears to be a malign influence effort from the Chinese Communist Party," military chief Romeo Brawner said in a statement.

"Transcripts can easily be fabricated, and audio recordings can be manufactured by using deep fakes. These reports only aims to serve as a distraction from the China coast guard's ongoing aggressive behaviour."

China's embassy in Manila did not respond to requests for comment on the transcript carried by the Manila Times. It had no immediate response to Brawner's statement.


China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lin Jian on Wednesday said the embassy in Manila had released details about "relevant communications" between the two countries on managing the situation at the Second Thomas Shoal. Lin did not elaborate.

"The facts are clear and backed by hard evidence that cannot be denied," Lin said in comments from a regular briefing shared by the embassy.

"The Philippines has insisted on denying these objective facts and seeks to mislead the international community."

The two countries have been embroiled in a series of standoffs in disputed areas of the South China Sea as the Philippines, emboldened by support from the United States and other allies, steps up its activities in waters policed by China's coast guard.

China has accused the Philippines of trespassing and of treachery. The Philippines has scolded Beijing for what it says is a policy of aggression and dangerous manoeuvring inside Manila's 200-mile exclusive economic zone.

China has long been vexed by the Philippines' stationing of a small group of marines at the Second Thomas Shoal aboard a warship that it intentionally grounded 25 years ago.

Beijing has repeatedly said the Philippines had agreed to tow that ship away, which Manila has rejected.

(Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Martin Petty)