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Scarborough fail: How Aquino blew it

Solid as our territorial claims against China are, we could lose these areas if President Aquino keeps making colossal blunders on this front.

Blunder No. 1:  The biggest, and the damage done probably irreparable until we get somebody else to represent our nation: Mr. Aquino deployed a warship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, to Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal to confront the Chinese fishermen, with naval soldiers even boarding their vessels.

With this move, Mr. Aquino made the Philippines the party militarizing the dispute. The Chinese must be thanking the President for giving them the higher moral ground in this crisis. It gave the hawks in the Chinese leadership all the ammunition they need to demand military action in Panatag.

The Chinese have squeezed every ounce of this blunder, claiming that a “Philippine warship harassed helpless Chinese fishermen who were seeking refuge from a storm inside Scarborough Shoal. It is the Philippine Navy that pointed their guns at our fishermen,” the Chinese embassy spokesman kept repeating.

The People’s Republic of China’s navy is known to be secretly but extensively patrolling the South China and West Philippine Seas. Yet China has never openly deployed naval ships in confrontations in disputed territories, so it wouldn’t be accused of militarizing the dispute. The vessels that went to Panatag to defend the fishermen weren’t even their “naval militia,” but—at least overtly—unarmed surveillance vessels of China’s Oceanic Administration and fisheries department.

Was Mr. Aquino hallucinating that BRP Gregorio del Pilar, our only real warship, was a mighty battleship that he can scare the Chinese away with?

Mr. Aquino just made us the laughing stock of the world. After a few days confronting the Chinese vessels, our warship turned tail and returned to port, as it had ran out of drinking water, food, or fuel—or all of these.

This is even the worst time for Mr. Aquino to create a flashpoint in our territorial disputes with China. The once-every-decade transition of power in China is ongoing, to be formalized in October at the National Congress of China’s Communist Party, and an intense struggle between two factions has broken out. Each faction will try to appear to be the most nationalistic and most determined in defending China’s sovereignty. Currently, that means a hard-line stance on the Panatag crisis.

Blunder No. 2: Matching the deployment of a warship was our officials’ saber-rattling braggadocio that they will be defending our territory “at all costs.” Mr. Aquino himself set the pugnacious tone months back when he boasted that he would respond to threats in our backyard such as Recto bank “as if it were in Recto Avenue.”

There has been no combat situation in Panatag—at least not yet—and, after our warship left, there are only civilian Filipino and Chinese vessels there. Yet our defense secretary, the Navy chief, even the head of the Northern Luzon Military Command have been blabbering about the dispute with their martial tenor, making us look like the bellicose protagonist.

In contrast, who were speaking for China? Even the Chinese ambassador had the sense to keep her mouth shut. Those who talked publicly were the embassy spokesperson and a political counselor—both among the Chinese’ lowest-ranking diplomats here. In Beijing, it was solely the foreign ministry spokesman who commented on the crisis. (Only recently, after the Chinese felt they already successfully painted the Philippines as the aggressor did a Chinese general and the foreign affairs vice minister comment on the issue.)

How would we feel if the Chinese defense minister or China’s navy chief made belligerent statements when the crisis started?

Blunder No. 3:  Mr. Aquino has done nothing to repair Philippine-China relationship so that there is practically no venue for good-faith negotiations during such a serious crisis as the Scarborough flashpoint. China has not forgiven Mr. Aquino for failing to prosecute the officials who mishandled the 2010 Luneta hostage crisis in which eight Chinese were killed. Mr. Aquino has snubbed China’s official development aid, even demonizing these as prone to corruption.

Mr. Aquino has not even undertaken the most basic step in improving our relations with China: installing a Philippine ambassador in Beijing. For the Chinese and for the diplomatic community, having only a charge d’affaires in Beijing for so long is a veiled insult.

And why hasn’t he? Because Mr. Aquino insisted on long-time family friend Domingo Lee as envoy. Lee, however, is so comically unqualified that it was Sen. Sergio Osmeña III, a zealous administration man, who passionately fought against his confirmation. It’s been nearly a month since the Panatag crisis broke out; Aquino hasn’t even nominated an envoy to Beijing yet.

Blunder No. 4:  Aquino has publicly groveled to the United States to intervene, which has only toughened the Chinese position, as it cannot appear to waver at the sight of American might. “Kill the chicken to frighten the monkey,” is an old Chinese proverb that is said to guide China’s foreign policy, as demonstrated since the Korean War up to the Paracels battle against the Vietnamese. Mr. Aquino has obviously made our country the chicken.

Blunder No. 5:  Even as the Panatag crisis involves our national security, integrity, and even our economy, Mr. Aquino has not asked the leaders of our nation for advice, in order to forge a national consensus on the crisis. He has ignored the two institutions for this: the National Security Council and the Council of State, which past presidents convened even for less serious crises. So if war breaks out with China, it should only be Mr. Aquino’s war.