(EDITOR’S NOTE: Mr. Tiglao submitted his column before the Arbitral Court issued its decision which favored the Philippine suit.)
Whatever the results of the Permanent Arbitral Court deliberations on the Philippine suit against China, which would be known after this column had been submitted, I can’t shrug off the suspicion that the US deftly played with President Aquino’s administration to file the case. For good or for bad.
Here are the facts, you decide:
1. With Aquino just a year in office, the US rushes to turn over to the Philippine Navy its refurbished Hamilton-class cutter that had been a fast-patrol vessel of its Coast Guard. The cutter, named the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, was commissioned by the US Navy in December 2011.
2. Throughout 2011, Aquino’s rhetoric against Chinese alleged intrusions into waters that are within our exclusive economic zone was rising. He even made the foolish boast that “he will protect Recto Bank as if it were Recto Avenue.” (As if we could send battalions to Recto Bank as easily as we can to a Manila area.) The US was also starting to criticize more stridently China’s reclamation of submerged atolls to transform them into artificial islands.
3. On April 10, 2012, operatives of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), together with armed Coast Guard men, board eight Chinese fishing vessels anchored on the shoal’s lagoon. They try to arrest the Chinese fishermen for illegal fishing and “harvesting endangered marine species.” Two China Maritime Surveillance (CMS) ships–civilian vessels–come to their rescue, however, and prevent the arrests. It is a mystery why the Navy decided to inspect the Chinese fishing vessels: the shoal’s lagoon has for decades been used both by Chinese and Filipino small fishermen. Aquino orders on the same day the BRP Gregorio del Pilar to proceed to the shoal.
4. Three other 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. It was a standoff, as our warship with the much-smaller Coast Guard vessels and those of the CMS vessels faced each other threateningly in the lagoon, both refusing to leave what each party considered its sovereign territory.
5. A few days later, the 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. The Philippine Coast Guard and BFAR vessels remain.
That was a lame excuse. Aquino realized sending a warship was a stupid move as it made the Philippines appear as the aggressor.
6. Aquino orders Sen. Antonio Trillanes 4th to undertake backdoor negotiations to resolve the standoff. Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, known to be very close to US authorities since his stint as Philippine Ambassador to the US for nearly eight years, does his own thing, which is to ask the Americans for help.
7. On June 7, 2012, Aquino orders the Coast Guard and BFAR vessels to leave the lagoon. The Chinese don’t, and would then physically block any kind of vessel, whether those of small Filipino fishermen or of the Coast Guard and BFAR ships, to even approach the shoal.
Aquino tells Trillanes that he ordered the ships out of Scarborough Shoal as del Rosario was told by the US that the Chinese had agreed to withdraw their vessels simultaneously with our ships. Trillanes was incredulous, telling Aquino that he was just in the midst of negotiations with the Chinese.
It was such a colossal boo-boo for us, a lesson never, never again to elect a stupid incompetent to head the nation. The Chinese were probably rolling in the ground laughing as Aquino gave them the excuse to take over Scarborough by sending a warship, which technically was a military move, only to withdraw it two days later, giving them total physical control of the territory.
The rule of the game in the Spratlys dispute, after the last violent takeover of the Paracel Islands by the Chinese from the Vietnamese in 1974, is that an area is yours, as long as you don’t take it by force. Thus we lost Pugad Island in 1975, which we had occupied since 1968, when the Vietnamese lured the Filipino garrison to an overnight birthday party in the nearby Parola Island. When they returned the next day, the Vietnamese were on the beach there, with their guns and mortars aimed at the approaching Filipino troops, and yelling at them to go away.
Now any Filipino vessel even of those of small fishermen approaching Scarborough Shoal is told to go away.
Embarrassed and livid, Aquino would tell the nation there was no other alternative but to file a case in an international venue, which turned out to be the Permanent Arbitral Court, against the Chinese takeover of Scarborough.
While you’re at it, the US probably told Aquino, expand your suit, so you would have us and other Western powers backing you, to include that crazy nine-dash-line the Chinese claimed within which was Chinese territory. A team of American lawyers had been to the Palace to help draft the Philippine case.
Would Aquino have sent to Scarborough the other rusting Navy vessels if he didn’t have the just-refurbished BRP Gregorio del Pilar? Would another less “American- boy” foreign affairs secretary (del Rosario was our ambassador to the US from 2001-2006) have been more skeptical of the US information? How did Trillanes, known since his coup-attempt days as having high-level contacts with US intelligence, get into the picture?
Brilliant. The US has refused to ratify the Unclos, so it can’t file a suit invoking that international agreement. It doesn’t even have a territorial claim in the entire South China Sea, and therefore no business there. Its involvement in the region is totally based on its sheer super-power status.
Malaysia, Brunei Darussalam, Taiwan and Vietnam — the claimants in the Spratly Islands — of course hadn’t moved nor will ever move publicly against China, much less file a case against it, as they calculate they are better off with an unsullied friendship with China.
The Chinese fought with the Vietnamese in 1974 over the Paracel Islands, killing over 52 Vietnamese Marines, and sinking two of their ships. Despite this, Vietnam isn’t publicly cheering the Philippines, as it cleverly calculates that it needs badly China’s trade and official aid at this stage of its development.
The Philippines was, as it has always been, America’s reliable lackey in the region. Perhaps it would be good for the world if we win the case, with China pressured by international public opinion to stop its militarization of the South China Sea.
There will certainly be a nationalist euphoria over our victory for a few months, and you can expect Aquino to go out of his cocoon to claim credit for it. I doubt, however, if that victory will really benefit us, and we’re left with an angry, superpower as our neighbor. Will we recover Scarborough Shoal with a favorable court decision? Ask the Marines.