President Benigno Aquino 3rd lost Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal) to the Chinese in 2012 because of his juvenile belligerency and bungling appointment of Senator Antonio Trillanes 4th as his personal envoy to China to deal with the crisis.
Aquino is the only Philippine President to have lost a territory of the country because of his bungling. At least in 1975, Marcos could not have known about the South Vietnamese plot to take over a Philippine territory.
One of the first things incoming President Duterte should ask Congress to do is to undertake a formal investigation of how that happened, and whether Aquino should be criminally charged for it.
If they find out that there aren’t laws in place penalizing a President’s stupidity, such investigation would at least clarify how on earth the country’s excellent, decades-long relationship with China was quickly reversed in a span of two years by Aquino, and how we lost territory, the first time this happened since 1975. (See story below.)
Here are the indisputable facts, and neither Malacañang nor the foreign affairs department had disputed these when I published them in May and June last year.
Some background: Although China and the Philippines have each been laying claim on Scarborough Shoal, there HAD never been an attempt from either the Chinese or Filipino forces to permanently station their troops there. Fishermen from both countries have acted as though there were no dispute, fished around and in the area, and routinely used its lagoon as a refuge from storms. This “peaceful coexistence” of sorts changed suddenly in April 2012.
April 10, 2012: 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 China Maritime Surveillance (CMS) ships come to their rescue and prevent the arrests in circumstances that are unclear.
April 11, 2012: Itching to try his new warship, President Aquino orders the frigate BRP Gregorio del Pilar – just “brand new” as the US coast guard had refurbished it and turned it over to our navy in May 2011 – to confront the Chinese at Panatag. “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, 2012: Three CMS ships enter the shoal, bringing with them a flotilla of 31 Chinese fishing boats and 50 dinghies. The number of CMS vessels in the days that follow increases to 10.
BRP Gregorio del Pilar – unexpectedly – leaves the area, according to Navy Flag Officer in Command Alexander Pama, “to replenish fuel and food provisions” in its base in La Union.
That was a lame excuse. Aquino was told by Washington that sending a naval warship was a stupid move, as it made the Philippines appear as the aggressor. While CMS vessels have been practically China’s muscle in enforcing its claims in the South China Sea, these are officially civilian, part of its Ministry of Transport’s Maritime Safety Administration.
Aquino may have even played into China’s hands as the Asian power claimed to the whole world that the Philippines militarized the dispute by sending a “warship,” even though the vessel was a hand-me-down from the US Coast Guard, which no longer had use for it. China, therefore, felt it had the right to retaliate and occupy the shoal.
When BRP Gregorio del Pilar left, Aquino ordered a vessel of our Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) and two Coast Guard vessels to remain near the entrance to the shoal’s lagoon.
In a casual talk with President Aquino and Executive Secretary Ochoa in his regular visits to Malacanang, Senator Antonio Trillanes 4th claimed he had high-level contacts with the Chinese government. Aquino told him to go to China and talk with his contacts to resolve the standoff. Aquino did not trust his foreign affairs secretary Albert del Rosario, as it was known in Malacañang circles that the former Philippine ambassador to the US was so rabidly anti-Chinese and pro-American.
June 2: After his trip to China to talk with his “contacts” — “of Politburo rank,” he told me — Trillanes told Aquino that the Chinese agreed on a simultaneous withdrawal of the Chinese ships and the Philippine vessels. “PNoy directed me to work on the sequential withdrawal of government ships inside the shoal,” Trillanes wrote in his aide-memoire on the crisis, which was later made available to me.
June 4: “PNoy called me to inform me that our BFAR vessel has already left the shoal but China reneged on the agreement of simultaneous withdrawal of their ships, so two of them [were] still inside the shoal,” Trillanes wrote.
June 10: Aquino orders the remaining two Coast Guard vessels to leave the area. The Chinese didn’t.
In his aide memoire on his “Backchannel Talks” made available to me, Trillanes put the blame squarely on del Rosario:
“I asked him who agreed with what, since I was just hammering out the details of the sequential withdrawal because the mouth of the shoal was too narrow for a simultaneous withdrawal. The President told me that Sec. del Rosario told him about the agreement reached in Washington,” Trillanes wrote.
“This time I asked PNoy: ‘If the agreement was simultaneous withdrawal, why did we leave first?’ PNoy responded to this effect: “Kaya nga sinabihan ko si Albert kung bakit niya pinalabas yung BFAR na hindi ko nalalaman.” (“That’s why I asked Albert [del Rosario] why he ordered the BFAR vessels to leave without my permission.”)
Since that time no Filipino ship or fishing vessel has been able to enter the shoal, now occupied by CMS vessels and Chinese fishing boats. The Chinese imposed a 15-nautical mile restriction perimeter around the shoal, and prevents any vessel from going into the shoal’s lagoon.
Chinese strategists must have rolled on the ground laughing at Aquino. They brilliantly manipulated Trillanes and their US contacts to fool Aquino that they would withdraw their ships from Scarborough if we did. They didn’t.
US officials have expressed concern that because a geological survey ship has been going around the shoal, China intends to build an artificial island, on which a fully armed garrison could be built there, just like it has done in several shoals and atolls.
That’s how bad things 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 wanted to strangle Trillanes during a Cabinet meeting, and why the latter alleges the former provoked the Chinese aggression.
Aquino during the entire crisis didn’t even seek the counsel of his Cabinet, and decided solely on Trillanes’ advice. Obviously, both were so utterly ignorant of the operative law in the South China dispute, and for most territorial disputes: “Occupation is ownership.”
Even American generals closely monitoring the Spratly territorial disputes must have pulled their hair in utter dismay at how their puppet Aquino dropped the ball.
A November 2014 report of the Center for Naval Analyses — a private think tank for the US military — entitled “The South China Sea: Assessing US Policy and Options for the Future” 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 first was in 1974 when Chinese troops and vessels fought South Vietnamese forces on the Paracel islands, resulting in 53 Vietnamese soldiers killed and dozens wounded. One Vietnamese warship was sunk and three others damaged. Chinese forces have since occupied the area.
The second territory acquired by China was Scarborough Shoal, though in this case, because of a bungling President, no single shot was fired:
“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.”
If we cannot jail this idiot for losing our territory, at least we must shame him and put his stupidity on record, and in the history books.
The second lost territory
Panatag is actually the second territory in the South China/West Philippine Sea we have lost. The first was to the Vietnamese.
Our military contingent on Pugad Island (Southwest Cay) in 1975 was invited to their commander’s birthday party, who was stationed on the bigger island of Parola (Northeast Cay). The South Vietnamese, from their outpost on a nearby island, invited our forces, purportedly as a gesture of their wish for friendship, to join the celebration of their commander’s birthday not only with booze and the best Vietnamese food, but with Saigon prostitutes. Our military, stationed probably on that tiny Pugad rock for months, couldn’t resist and all went to the Parola party.
They returned the next day to find a fully armed Vietnamese garrison, their cannons aimed at whoever would try to approach the island.
I’m not sure which is worse: Losing territory because sex-starved, thirsty troops abandoned their posts in 1975, or losing territory in 2012 when China fooled the President and a Senator of the Republic.