Third of a 4-part series
IT’S a cliché for sure, but I can’t help using it in disgust over the episode: “Only in the Philippines.” Indeed, where else could a nation’s loss of its territory be hidden for so long by its President, with the help of a media that claims to be independent?
The inept Aquino government on June 3, 2012 gave up Panatag Shoal (Bajo de Masinloc or Scarborough Shoal) to the Chinese, yet managed to keep it under wraps, so that the truth came out only in trickles over several years. So much so that many Filipinos, even knowledgeable ones, are unaware of that enormous loss, and how it happened, to this day.
This chapter is also an indictment of how media, especially the most powerful newspaper at that time, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, betrayed the nation by wittingly or unwittingly hiding that loss of Philippine territory which was the result of President Aquino 3rd and his foreign secretary Alberto del Rosario’s bungling.
Chinese and Philippine government vessels had been on a stand-off for seven weeks in May and April 2012 in Panatag Shoal, with each party’s vessels refusing to move. On June 3 though, del Rosario without Aquino’s permission, ordered our three ships to leave the area. The Chinese never left the shoal; that’s how we lost Panatag – forever as it were.
Del Rosario, a corporate executive-turned-foreign-affairs-secretary, obviously didn’t do his homework on this most crucial foreign-affairs issue. In 1975, the Vietnamese had fooled our troops who had been holding Southwest Cay (also in the Spratlys) since 1968, to leave for a party in a nearby island that Vietnam occupied. They returned the next morning to find that the Vietnamese had occupied their island, barring them from landing on it. The Vietnamese of course never left it and even built fortifications on it.
But in that case, it was low-ranking soldiers probably bored out of their wits in a so faraway island, who were fooled and lost our territory; in this case it was our foreign secretary.
Left June 3
The spokesman of China’s foreign ministry Li Weimin issued a statement on Sunday, June 4, 2012 : “The remaining Philippine vessel finally left the lagoon on June 3.” The spokesman even arrogantly warned the Philippines: “China does not hope to see any more provocative behavior that hurts China’s interest,” referring to what it called “Huangyan incident” when starting “April 10, Philippine warships* harassed Chinese fishermen.”
It was Sen. Antonio Trillanes 4th who disclosed that del Rosario had ordered the Philippine vessels to leave. Either del Rosario was so gullible that he believed then US Ambassador Harry Thomas’ communication to him that the US got China to agree to a simultaneous withdrawal of both countries’ ships. Or, as Trillanes alleged, del Rosario simply wanted the rift between China and the Philippines to worsen. The senator explained that he was still working out with the Chinese details of the simultaneous withdrawal when he was told, to his shock, that the Filipino vessels had already left.
Del Rosario would later claim that the Chinese reneged on its agreement for a simultaneous withdrawal, although even the US has not confirmed that China had agreed to withdraw. He kept on referring to a stand-off over Panatag, never saying that the Chinese control it after our vessels were ordered out.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer had a banner story on June 16, two weeks after China took control of the shoal after del Rosario ordered our vessels out: “PH ships leave Panatag.” The banner story’s drophead read: “ ‘Butchoy’ forces end to stand-off with China,” referring to a typhoon with international code name “Guchol.”
The article quoted del Rosario: “Citing bad weather, President Aquino has ordered home two Philippine ships engaged in a standoff with China over Scarborough Shoal.”
That was a total fabrication. Typhoon “Butchoy” never even entered the Philippine mainland, and moved on the opposite side of Luzon. And even if it had battered Panatag, its lagoon had been for centuries a refuge for even small fishing vessels to shield themselves from the roughest seas. It was a lie disseminated by almost all print and broadcast media on June 16:
GMA News Online: ”Aquino orders pullout of PHL ships from Panatag Shoal due to bad weather”;
Rappler.com: “PH pulls out ships from Scarborough due to bad weather”;
Philstar: “President Aquino ordered two Philippine ships to pull out of Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal due to bad weather Friday night.”
ABS-CBN News’ report though was a bigger fabrication: “China pulls out boats from Scarborough.” The lede paragraph read: “Following a similar move by the Philippines, China pulled out its fishing boats from Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal last Sunday due to ‘inclement’ weather.” Chinese vessels of course had remained in the shoal in the lagoon, and leaving only when replacements arrive.
The much bigger smokescreen that Aquino and del Rosario employed to conceal their culpability for the loss of Panatag was the case it filed against China at the Permanent Court of Arbitration for violating the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. Even as the PCA’s “award” cannot be enforced – and didn’t rule on who owns Panatag as well as other disputed areas in the Spratlys – the case had portrayed Aquino and del Rosario as boldly fighting for Philippine territory, thus concealing that they lost Philippine territory because of their ineptness.
To be honest, I myself for two years had been fooled that we hadn’t lost Panatag and that we were still struggling with China over it, although I had written a column during the stand-off explaining that it was Aquino who triggered the crisis when he sent our biggest warship in the area (“Scarborough fail: How Aquino blew it,” May 4, 2012),
It is ironic that it was in an interview in November 2014 with Trillanes, in which he alleged del Rosario’s culpability for the loss which he claimed was deliberate, that I realized that our government stupidly lost Panatag to the Chinese.
To this day, it has been only specialized articles on the South China Sea by foreigners that we are told unequivocally that the Aquino administration lost Panatag in 2012. A recent one was an article in a book (Examining the South China Sea Disputes: Papers from the Fifth Annual CSIS South China Sea Conference) which narrated:
“In the Scarborough Shoal incident of 2012, China’s Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) prevented the arrest of Chinese fishers by a Philippine coast guard cutter … The FLEC ships moved between the Philippine cutter and the fishing ships, beginning a standoff that ended when Manila withdrew its cutter and other vessels, and China occupied Scarborough Shoal.”
A report of the Center for Naval Analyses, a think-tank for the US military, explained the implications of such occupation:
“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.”
(On Wednesday: Aquino and del Rosario begged US to intervene in the Panatag stand-off, and were rudely rebuffed.)