• Reading time:7 mins read

Aquino, the first President to lose Philippine territory

I’m not referring to the future, to the likely loss of central Mindanao and even Sulu if we ever give that territory to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) to run, as the BBL would if enacted into law.

What I’m referring to is Scarborough Shoal, which we call Panatag Shoal, or its Spanish-era name, Bajo de Masinloc. What the diplomatic community has known since 2012 and what the most objective analysts of the Spratly territorial dispute have known, we Filipinos either came to be the last to know or simply refused to believe:

Because of China’s aggressiveness and as a result of our bungling confrontation with the superpower in 2012, and the stupidity – and out-of-place belligerency – of President Aquino and his officials, Chinese ships now permanently occupy Panatag Shoal, and our coast guard vessels and even Filipinos seamen are now barred from entering it.

We have lost Bajo de Masinloc, and the 60 ancient maps that Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio says prove our claim aren’t worth the price of photocopies of those maps he had collected. The US defense department’s recent rattling of its sabers, warning China’s behavior in the South China came a bit too late for us.

I was shocked at this reality that we have lost Panatag Shoal, and angry with this government, after reading a November 2014 report of the CNA Corp. entitled “The South China Sea: Assessing US Policy and Options for the Future.” This isn’t just one of the plethora of articles on the South China dispute by academics and analysts.

The CNA stands for the Center for Naval Analyses, which its website describes as “a federally-funded research and development center for the Navy and Marine Corps. The Center also provides research and analytical services to other military and government agencies to help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of US national defense efforts.” Its headquarters is in Arlington, Virginia.

In short, it is the US navy’s think tank, and it is paid for being objective and exhaustive in its analysis. Bad for us, it practically telegraphs the US thinking on the Spratly dispute, although obviously with a “deniability” posture.

The report pointed out matter-of-factly that in the past 40 years, China has been able to take other nations’ territory only in two instances.

The territory we lost. Map from CNA report, the boxed notations and arrows by the author.
The territory we lost. Map from CNA report, the boxed notations and arrows by the author.

Paracels first, Scarborough second

The first was in 1974 when Chinese troops and vessels fought off South Vietnamese forces on the Paracel islands, resulting in 53 Vietnamese soldiers, killed dozens wounded, one of its warships sunk and three others damaged. Chinese forces have since occupied the area. “The reality is that China has occupied the entire Paracel group for 40 years, and—short of military action by Vietnam to try and recapture the archipelago—will never leave, “ the CNA study pointed out.

The second territory acquired by China is Scarborough Shoal, in this case, though, the bully superpower didn’t need to fire a single shot. The report pointed out:

“From its perspective, China resolved the sovereignty dispute with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal in 2012 when it established control over the shoal. Again, it is unlikely to relinquish it. The government of the Philippines is in no position to even begin to contemplate the use of force to recover Scarborough, and the United States is not going to become involved in any attempt to expel the Chinese.”

How did we lose Panatag Shoal, and who is to blame, other than, of course, the Chinese bullies?

Some background information: Although China has been claiming Scarborough Shoal, alleging that it is within its nine-dash line, there HAD never been an attempt from either Chinese or Filipino forces to permanently station troops there, with the competing claims seemingly ignored by vessels from both countries that use its lagoon as a refuge from storms. This “peaceful coexistence” of sorts changed suddenly in April 2012. You decide who is to blame:

April 10: Sailors from a Philippine Navy surveillance ship board eight Chinese fishing vessels anchored in the shoal’s lagoon. They try to arrest the Chinese fishermen for illegal fishing and “harvesting endangered marine species.” However, two Chinese maritime surveillance ships prevent the arrests, in circumstances that are unclear.

April 11: President Aquino orders our only warship, the frigate BRP Gregorio del Pilar, just “brand new” as the US coast guard had refurbished it and turned over to our navy in May 2011. “What is important is we take care of our sovereignty. We cannot give [Scarborough Shoal] away and we cannot depend on others but ourselves,” Aquino blustered.

April 12: Three Chinese Maritime Surveillance Ships (CMS), eventually increasing in number to 10, enter the shoal, bringing with them an astonishing armada of 31 Chinese fishing boats and 50 dinghies.

BRP Gregorio del Pilar leaves the area, according to Navy flag officer in command Alexander Pama, in order to replenish fuel and food provisions at Poro Point in La Union. However, a vessel of our Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources and two Coast Guard vessels continued to remain near the entrance to the shoal’s lagoon.

June, unknown dates: Senator Antonio Trillanes 3rd, acting as Aquino’s personal envoy to China told the president that the Chinese agreed on a simultaneous withdrawal of the Chinese ships and the BFAR vessel.

June 10: Aquino orders the Philippine vessels to leave the area. The Chinese didn’t. Trillanes in his written report claimed: “Around 02 July, I was able to negotiate the reduction of the CMS vessels to only 3.”

Filipinos now barred

Since that time, though, no Filipino ship or fishing vessel has been able to enter the shoal, now occupied by shifting numbers of Chinese government ships and fishing vessels. The Chinese imposed a 15-nautical mile restriction perimeter around the shoal.

That’s how bad it can get with a stupid yet arrogant President, who listens to the counsel of a megalomaniac senator. Now I understand why Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto del Rosario probably wanted to strangle Trillanes during a Cabinet meeting, and why the latter alleges the former provoked the Chinese aggression.

I think the Chinese haven’t stopped laughing at the Aquino government, rolling on the ground as they point their fingers at Trillanes and del Rosario.

The CNA study indicated that the Scarborough Shoal episode had the effect of clarifying the limits of the US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty.

The report pointed out: “US policy-makers have repeatedly pointed out that Washington takes no position on sovereignty claims, including those made by the Philippines on portions of the Spratly group annexed after the Mutual Defense Treaty with the Philippines was signed on August 30, 1951.”

“This means that the United States probably would not become militarily involved if the Chinese seized a feature occupied or claimed by the Philippines—as they essentially did in the case of Scarborough Shoal.”

The report continued: “But, if in the process of doing so, China were to attack a Philippine naval or coast guard vessel, shoot down a Philippine military aircraft, or kill or wound members of the Philippine armed forces, treaty language related to attacks on “its [the Philippines’] armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific” (the South China Sea is considered as being in the Pacific) suggests that the treaty would apply.”

In plainer terms, what the American think tank for its Navy is saying is that the US would have come to the aid of our naval ships only if the Chinese at Scarborough Shoal had attacked them. But the Chinese didn’t, wouldn’t – or couldn’t, since our frigate turned tail, ahem, rather, had to leave to replenish its food and fuel supplies, and Aquino apparently got fooled by the Chinese and ordered our vessels to leave Panatag Shoal.

I hope there’s another confrontation similar to that in Scarborough Shoal before Aquino steps down, and we all sign a petition for him to be at the BRP Gregorio del Pilar to defend our territory.