Second of a 4-part series
BOTH President Benigno Aquino 3rd and Sen. Antonio Trillanes 4th blamed then Foreign Affairs Secretary Alberto del Rosario for the country’s losing Panatag (Scarborough or Bajo de Masinloc) Shoal in 2012 to China.
Yet del Rosario has to gall to call President Duterte’s Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana a propaganda tool of China for saying in an interview that Aquino mismanaged the sea dispute.
The truth is that if there is anybody who is a propaganda tool, it is the US-educated del Rosario, who by his actions and statements, especially since he was our ambassador to the US, has indisputably proven to be the very reliable mouthpiece of the US’ deep state. This has been crucial for the US since, as it does not have any claim in the disputed seas, it desperately required proxies in the area, roles which Aquino and del Rosario very ably assumed.
It was the reckless deployment by Aquino, del Rosario’s boss, of our biggest warship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, to Panatag Shoal on April 12, 2012 that triggered a stand-off between Chinese and Philippine vessels that lasted for six weeks. According to Aquino and Trillanes, it was del Rosario’s order directing our vessels to withdraw from the area that effectively handed over the shoal to China.
Aquino had blustered that the frigate would defend against the Chinese Maritime Surveillance (CMS) the vessels of our Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) and Coast Guard which had arrested a number of Chinese fishermen for “illegal fishing” in the shoal. Aquino, told of his mistake, immediately ordered the frigate to leave the area. It was a boo-boo that couldn’t be “deleted,” and China exploited it to claim that the Philippines militarized the disputed shoal.
Rather than sending its own warships though, China deployed several CMS vessels to escort more than 90 Chinese fishing boats to the shoal in, ironically for us, a seaborne “People Power”-of-sorts tactic against our ships. For seven weeks, there was a standoff, with both Chinese and Philippine vessels refusing to leave the area.
However, on June 3, del Rosario ordered our BFAR and Coast Guard vessels to leave the shoal. This was a colossal mistake as it left the Chinese in complete control of the shoal, and they have never left the area. That’s how we completely lost Panatag, the first territory ever that we have lost.
Among the many similar accounts on the Philippine blunder is a November 2014 report of the Center for Naval Analyses (CNA)—a think-tank for the US military—that concluded:
“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.”
Both in an interview with Trillanes with me in 2015, and in his aide memoire “Backchannel Talks” that he gave me, the senator claimed it was del Rosario who was responsible for the boo-boo, with Aquino himself blaming his foreign secretary. He was so angry at del Rosario that in my talk with him and with a television network, he said what del Rosario did was treason.
“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.
“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.
Trillanes continued: “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.”)
Fu Ying meet
According to my government and diplomatic sources as well as to the report of Ellen Tordesillas, who was the most knowledgeable diplomatic reporter at the time, what transpired was as follows:
Fu Ying, vice minister of Foreign Affairs in charge of Asia (who had been ambassador here from 1998 to 2000) met on June 1 with Kurt Campbell, the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, in Washington, to discuss Aquino and del Rosario’s request for the Americans to intervene—even militarily, my sources claimed—in the crisis. Campbell relayed President Obama’s position that the US cannot intervene in the dispute, and instead suggested a simultaneous withdrawal of vessels from Panatag Shoal to de-escalate the tension.
The Chinese official told Campbell that she would relay the suggestion to her superiors in Beijing. However, for some unexplained reason, then US Ambassador to Manila Harry Thomas told del Rosario that China had already agreed to a simultaneous withdrawal.
The gullible del Rosario immediately ordered, in the middle of the night, the BFAR and Coast Guard vessels to pull out, leaving the Chinese in complete control of the shoal. Aquino would only find out about the pull-out when he woke up—a bit late—the following morning.
That this was what happened is bolstered by a DFA statement released in July 2012 to explain why the Philippines failed to convince the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) to condemn China’s takeover of the shoal:
“On the reference to ‘duplicity and intimidation,’ the Philippines forged an agreement with China for the simultaneous pullout of all vessels inside the shoal, which we undertook in good faith on June 4. Furthermore, China agreed to remove its barrier at the entrance of the shoal.
“Yet to this day, China has not fulfilled its obligations under the agreement and has maintained its ships inside and outside the shoal, as well as its barrier, in its aim to establish effective control and jurisdiction in the shoal and surrounding waters.”
Neither US nor China
Neither the US nor China, of course, have confirmed that there was such an agreement. If there was, and it was the US that mediated the pact, wouldn’t it have condemned China for violating it?
Among the questions raised by this account:
1. Did Campbell really tell their Ambassador Thomas, to tell del Rosario that the Chinese had agreed to withdraw from the shoal? Or did Thomas misinterpret his superior’s communication? Or worse, did the 73-year-old del Rosario hear what he wanted to hear, as the standoff had lasted for seven weeks, and he was crumbling under the tension?
2. Or, as Trillanes alleged, was del Rosario’s real intention was to worsen the rift between China and the Philippines, which he claimed was the agenda of the foreign secretary’s business boss, Manuel V. Pangilinan, so the US itself would eventually protect one of his firm’s oil-drilling projects in the Reed Bank, also claimed by China?
3. How could del Rosario go over the head of Aquino that he could order the BFAR and Coast Guard ships to leave Panatag?
Del Rosario should give his side on these questions in the planned Senate investigation on our territorial dispute with China.
Or he could ask the Philippine Star, which his boss Pangilinan (whose boss in turn is the Indonesian tycoon Anthoni Salim) controls, to devote a whole page to explain his side on how we lost Panatag.
(On Wednesday: How Aquino and the Yellow Media hid the loss of Panatag from the nation)