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Chinese premier asked for Aquino apology

Using diplomatic language, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao unexpectedly asked President Aquino to apologize for the massacre of August 23 last year of eight Hong Kong tourists in a hostage situation bungled by his government, diplomatic sources say. Mr. Aquino was caught flatfooted, as his foreign affairs officials had said they were sure the issue was a “dead one.”

Though stated in a roundabout way, Wen’s message was unmistakable, and wasn’t even made confidential, the sources say, pointing to the official account by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mr. Aquino’s September 1 meeting: “Wen urged the Philippine government to attach importance to the requests of the government and people of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and properly handle the aftermath of last year’s incident in which tourists from Hong Kong were held hostage in Manila.”

The main request made by the victim’s relatives was for Mr. Aquino to formally apologize for his government’s blunders in the hostage crisis.  The other two requests were for cash compensation, and for the government to file criminal cases against officials who bungled the crisis.

The foreign affairs ministry reported the President’s reply: “Aquino, in response, said the Philippine government and people feel deep regret for the tragedy, noting that the Philippine government is handling the aftermath in a serious manner and will keep in contact with China.”

Mr. Aquino thus committed himself to report to China – and not only to the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region – on whatever steps he will take to show that he is “properly handling the aftermath” of the massacre.

Ironically, the state visit only provided the occasion for China’s central leadership to comment on – even officially intervene in – the Luneta hostage fiasco. To emphasize the message, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, made Wen’s “urging” as the only news item from his meeting with Mr. Aquino, headlining it: “China urges the Philippines to properly handle aftermath of HK hostage incident.”

While expected of a superpower dealing with a weaker nation, Wen’s demand for an apology was also a reaction to the recent incendiary remarks by Mr. Aquino and his officials on the massacre. Mr. Aquino made the request for an apology seem ridiculous by comparing it to the recent massacre of 77 people in Denmark by a lone gunman, ignoring the fact that there was no hostage situation with the police in position for 11 hours. The victims were particularly incensed by Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda’s comment that their visit accompanied by a Hong Kong “opposition lawmaker” was just a part of that official’s politicking, a statement which a Hong Kong newspaper headlined: “Philippine government attacks HK lawmaker.”

The Luneta massacre was not the only dark cloud that hung heavily over the Aquino visit.  Just a month ago, the Aquino administration raised China’s hackles over the Spratlys dispute.  Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario claimed that China was fabricating its claim on the Spratlys because of its “hunger for the area’s oil and gas resources.” Mr. Aquino boasted that the Philippine Navy’s newly refurbished warship from the US would be deployed to the disputed areas in the “Western Philippine Sea” to protect its claims from Chinese incursions. The Navy announced that it was finishing a second construction on a disputed island.

With this kind of provocative statements, the People’s Daily portrayed Mr. Aquino’s visit as a “reconciliatory stance,” a “first step” in easing tensions between the two countries. It reported that Mr. Aquino had agreed that disputes between the two countries would be handled through bilateral consultations, a reversal of his earlier position to take the issue to the United Nations for arbitration.

China clearly sent its message of displeasure over Mr. Aquino’s handling of the Luneta incident and the Spratlys dispute by making his visit so unproductive and lukewarm that made diplomats wonder why he made the visit at such a time of unprecedented tension between the two countries. In the entire five-day visit, the Chinese did not host any state dinner, vin d’honneur, lunch, or even dimsum for the President so that he had to take his meals inside his suite or dine with his own delegation at hotel restaurants.

The seven agreements signed in Beijing were so embarrassingly vacuous documents that neither the People’s Daily nor the websites of Philippine government agencies involved bothered to report them. One agreement for instance merely called on our government TV to run Chinese news. At the last minute, the Chinese rejected a “Joint Statement on the South China Sea” which the Department of Foreign Affairs earlier had announced would be signed. There was no discussion about any soft or inexpensive loan from China, which has overtaken the World Bank as the biggest lender to developing countries. Our foreign secretary downgraded his rank by signing the documents with bureaucrats whose ranks were too low that they were not even identified in the reports as his counterparts.

But Mr. Aquino again proved his tight hold on local media, which mouthed his claims uncritically. The “$60-billion, five-year development program” with China was merely an extrapolation based on the trend in total Philippines-China trade that saw bilateral trade growing to $28 billion in 2010.  “P-Noy back with $13-billion deal” is pure hype. Only $1.3 billion were “firm commitments” – mostly expansion plans of Chinese companies already in the country, such those by China’s State Grid Corp., which invested $1 billion in a power project with the Henry Sy group in 2007.