HE arbitration case that the Philippines filed against the People’s Republic of China was a colossal cover-up for the bungling by President Aquino and his foreign secretary, Alberto del Rosario, of our territorial dispute that resulted in our losing in 2012 Scarborough Shoal (Panatag or Bajo de Masinloc).
Aquino’s administration cunningly shifted the nation’s attention from its monumental blunder by filing in 2013 with the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at the Hague the case against China for violating provisions of the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (Unclos). The case demonized the superpower as a bully in the region that grabbed Scarborough from us in its expansionist drive.
Aquino, Del Rosario, and their allies’ campaign against China over Scarborough made up one of the Yellow regime’s biggest sins against the nation—which it has even sickeningly portrayed to this day as a nationalistic project. Indeed, as Samuel Johnson pointed out three centuries ago, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”
The suit and the decision of the arbitration court a year ago placed us on a collision path with China; we were on the verge of being cut off from the second biggest economy in the world, losing it as a huge market and supplier of goods, and as an investment site.
Yet winning the suit has meant nothing in resolving the disputes in the South China Sea, since these involve sovereign claims over territory and not maritime entitlements as provided under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which the PCA ruled on.
The suit’s big beneficiary is the US so that it is not unlikely that it backed up the Philippine case from the start. With China refusing to recognize the suit and the award, the US has succeeded in painting its emerging rival as the Asian equivalent of the Evil Empire in Asia.
The suit’s decision that no geographical feature in the Spratly islands can have a 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone – which surprised most legal experts – in effect declared most the seas there as international waters, which the US’ powerful blue-water fleet can freely patrol.
“We had no other option but to file the case, as the Chinese grabbed Scarborough,” Del Rosario said when the case was filed in January 2013.
The de facto spokesman for Aquino’s project against China, Supreme Court Senior Justice Antonio Carpio in his e-book entitled The South China Sea Dispute: Philippine Sovereign Rights and Jurisdiction in the West Philippine Sea, also pointed out that the Chinese occupation of Scarborough was “the act that finally convinced the Philippine government to file the arbitration case against China.”
Carpio in effect claimed that the shoal’s loss was just another Chinese step in its grand plan to control the entire South China Sea, as if its leaders one morning just decided to grab Scarborough:
“In mid-2011, I asked Gen. (Jose) Almonte which shoal or reef would China seize from the Philippines next. He immediately answered without any hesitation: Scarborough Shoal… I completely agreed with him… in 2012, China seized Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines.”
Carpio’s statements is one of the many instances of his crass intellectual dishonesty in his e-book. The truth is by ordering a warship into Scarborough in 2012 to confront Chinese civilian govenrment ships and fishing vessels, Aquino gave the Chinese the excuse to retaliate and occupy the shoal. This was even reported, alhough only sketchily in the newspapers at that time, and summarized in several books and scholarly articles on the South China Sea controversy.
Although claimed by us, China, and Taiwan even before World War 2, there had been only occasional symbolic, harmless actions by the parties to claim sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal, all of which were quickly forgotten. There has never been any attempt from both Chinese and Filipino forces there to impose their sovereignty over the shoal. Vessels and fishermen from both countries routinely entered the lagoon usually for refuge from storms, as if there were no dispute over who owned it.
That changed with Aquino. On April 11, Aquino sent the naval warship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, to confront two civilian China Maritime Surveillance ships (CMS, under the State Oceanic Administration) in the shoal that foiled our Coast Guard and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources’ attempt to arrest Chinese fishermen they claimed were illegally fishing in the area.
Aquino ordered the BRP Gregorio del Pilar to leave the area to get out the next day when he was told of his blunder: by sending a warship, he had militarized the dispute.
But it was too late. It gave the Chinese the casus belli—the justification— to mobilize to completely take over Scarborough. Some 10 CMS ships entered the lagoon, and with them a flotilla of 31 fishing boats and dinghies to portray to their citizens that it was a sea version of people power against a bullying nation that prevented Chinese fishermen from earning a living, and in an area China “owned” for more than a century.
In panic, Aquino ordered two Coast Guard and BFAR vessels to block the entrance to the lagoon. With neither party attacking the other nor leaving, the standoff lasted for more than a month.
Quite unexpectedly and suddenly, on June 5, 2012, the Department of Foreign Affairs issued a two-sentence press statement: “Following our consultations, the two Chinese maritime vessels and our BFAR vessel are no longer in the lagoon. We continue the consultations to address the remaining issues in Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough).”
That statement was wrong. While all Philippine vessels left the lagoon, the Chinese vessels remained. We lost Panatag Shoal. China would occupy it to this day with several CMS ships, warning Philippine vessels approaching not to enter the lagoon.
The Philippines lost Scarborough under the unwritten rules of territorial disputes, which is as follows: A state’s forces cannot kick out another state’s forces occupying an area using violence. But if that state can do so without violence, even if it uses only the threat of violence or trickery, than their occupation would be a fait accompli.
Why in the world did Aquino order our ships out of Scarborough?
Sen. Antonio Trillanes, whom Aquino appointed in May 2012 as his “special envoy” to set up “backchannel” talks with China during the standoff, disclosed in a confidential document in 2015 exactly how Aquino had bungled the episode.
After talking with Chinese officials in Beijing, Trillanes said he reported to 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 I have a copy of.
In this document, Trillanes wrote that on June 4, “PNoy called me to inform me that our vessel 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 put the blame squarely on Foreign Secretary 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 Secretary 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.”)
Should be shot
“Del Rosario should be shot, ”Trillanes told me in an interview. “He lost Scarborough.”
Del Rosario had not explained publicly who in the US officialdom he was talking to who purportedly told him the Chinese agreed to a simultaneous withdrawal from Scarborough. Neither has the US confirmed nor denied that it was involved in the episode.
With Aquino’s immense popularity at the time, he and del Rosario would cover up their bungling by exploiting Filipinos’ knee-jerk nationalism with its David-versus-Goliath narrative that an expansionist China forcibly grabbed Scarborough from such a weak country as ours.
But any false narrative would require some kind of scaffolding if it would have some credibility.
Such elaborate, and expensive scaffolding was in the form of the Philippines’ clever filing of a case against China which was very cleverly based on the Unclos that dealt with maritime disputes, even as China’s claim on Scarborough was not on the basis of maritime entitlements but on its declarations first made in 1935 that what it called Huangyan Island was part of Chinese territory.
Quite obviously the cover-up worked, and there has been almost no discussion on how Aquino and del Rosario lost Scarborough, with the former foreign secretary even managing to portray himself as a patriot who led the fight against a superpower. Such nonsense.
Fortunately, President Duterte won as President and pulled the country from the brink. He reversed such a disastrous path that was belligerent against the superpower in our part of the world, and in effect adopted Deng Xiaoping’s advice on his country’s many territorial disputes decades ago: “ Let the next generation which will have more wisdom settle these. “