First of a 3-part series
SEN. Loren Legarda, the chairman of the Senate’s committee on foreign relations, said the other day that she welcomed a probe into the country’s handling of its territorial dispute with China in the South China Sea.
That would be great, not only so we would learn invaluable lessons on how to handle the territorial dispute. But just as important, such an investigation will finally inform the nation—and it will be written in our history books—how President Aquino, his foreign secretary Albert del Rosario, and Sen. Antonio Trillanes lost Panatag Shoal (Scarborough) to the Chinese in 2012 because of their bungling. We lost Panatag also partly because of Aquino and del Rosario’s colossal error of trusting the US too much, as the following account will show.
Trillanes of course strived to put the blame on del Rosario, whom he even accused of treason in an interview in a GMA News segment on the Panatag incident, which he claimed was part of the foreign secretary’s strategy to create a rift between China and the Philippines. Trillanes also claimed that in the end, Aquino had blamed del Rosario for the fiasco.
Such an investigation will teach us valuable lessons on how to handle our territorial disputes with China. For instance, Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio was either so misinformed on how we lost Panatag or was simply trying to push President Duterte in making the same colossal mistake as Aquino did in 2012 when he urged him to send the Navy to the area to enforce our sovereignty.
That kind of move was precisely what Aquino stupidly did in 2012 that triggered the events that with his ineptness led to our loss of Panatag to the Chinese.
Here are the indisputable facts, and neither Aquino, del Rosario, nor Trillanes have disputed them after I pointed this out in several columns in 2015 and 2016. These are the same facts reported in other accounts of the episode, for instance, in Richard Javad Heydarian’s book, Asia’s New Battlefield (pages 164 to 165), although the intellectually timid or pro-Aquino author, even as the facts stared him in the face, couldn’t get himself to state that we lost Panatag because of Aquino’s bungling.
Some background: Although China and the Philippines had each been laying claim to Scarborough Shoal, there was never been an attempt from either the Chinese or Philippine forces to permanently station troops there. Fishermen from both countries acted as though there were no dispute, fished around and in the area, and routinely used its lagoon as a refuge from storms.
Aquino broke the “peaceful coexistence” of sorts 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 allegedly for illegal fishing. However, two vessels from the China Maritime Surveillance (CMS) come to the rescue of the Chinese and prevent the arrests in circumstances that are unclear.
Aquino immediately orders the Navy’s biggest warship BRP Gregorio del Pilar (a refurbished cutter from the US Coast Guard) to confront the Chinese at Panatag Shoal. “What is important is we take care of our sovereignty. We cannot give [Panatag] 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. Aquino suddenly orders BRP Gregorio del Pilar to leave and return to its La Union base. Aquino had apparently been told by Washington that sending a naval warship was a stupid move, as it made the Philippines appear as the aggressor. The CMS vessels were civilian vessels of China’s State Oceanic Administration, which in 2013 merged with the Chinese Coast Guard.
Aquino played into China’s hands. Beijing claimed to the whole world that the Philippines had militarized the dispute by sending a “warship,” even though the vessel was a hand-me-down from the US Coast Guard that the President like a kid with a new toy had been itching to deploy. China, therefore, felt it had the right to retaliate and occupy the shoal.
Sea-borne People Power
Cleverly, though, instead of deploying any number of its 400 warships that has made China the second biggest navy in the world—as it did in its battle with the Vietnamese in the Paracels in 1974—China launched a seaborne People Power of sorts. Escorted of course by three CMS vessels, 90 small Chinese fishing boats occupied the shoal’s lagoon, which is actually the most strategic or useful area of Panatag as it provides a sanctuary for vessels during rough seas.
When the BRP Gregorio del Pilar left, Aquino could deploy only one 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.
A stand-off ensued that lasted for a month and a half, with neither side of course unwilling to fire the first shot.
China even managed to take advantage of another of Aquino’s blunders, which was to appoint Trillanes as his secret envoy to resolve the stand-off peacefully. Trillanes only confused the situation.
April 12 to June 2: The Chinese CMS vessels and 90 fishing boats occupy the lagoon, while about seven Philippine BFAR and Coast guard vessels position themselves just outside the entrance to it in a stand-off.
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 made available to me.
June 3: Aquino orders the remaining two Coast Guard vessels to leave the area. The Chinese didn’t. They haven’t left the area to this day. That’s how we lost Panatag.
“PNoy called me to inform me that our two BFAR vessels 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.
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. China has imposed a 15-nautical mile restriction perimeter around the shoal, and prevents any vessel from going into the shoal’s lagoon.
Laughing at Aquino
Chinese strategists must have rolling on the ground laughing at Aquino. They cleverly manipulated Trillanes, del Rosario and their US contacts to fool Aquino that they would withdraw their ships from Scarborough if we did. They didn’t.
Even American generals closely monitoring the Spratly territorial disputes must have been pulling their hair out in utter frustration at how their puppet Aquino dropped the ball.
A November 2014 report of the Center for Naval Analyses (CAN) — a 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 being killed and dozens wounded. Chinese forces have since occupied the area.
The second territory acquired by China, the CAN reported, 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.” (Emphasis mine.)
Aquino filed the arbitration case against China in January 2013 to cover up for our loss of Panatag because of his ineptness, which was successful in terms of public perception because of his control over media during his administration.
(On Wednesday: How Aquino and the Yellow Media hid the loss of Panatag from the nation.)