Fourth of a series on the South China Sea dispute*
HURT by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana’s remarks that “President Aquino mismanaged the Philippine sea dispute with China,” former Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario blabbered too much in order to hit back.
In an article posted at the website of the pompously named “Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute for Strategic and International Studies”** —which the billionaire appears to have bankrolled—del Rosario admitted what he and his boss Aquino had hidden from the nation since 2012: We lost Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, just 124 nautical miles off Zambales, because of their huge blunder.
In his article, del Rosario wrote: “During the impasse at Scarborough Shoal with China, we were approached by the US, an honest broker, for both China and the Philippines to agree to a simultaneous withdrawal of ships from the shoal. We therefore agreed. At the appointed time, we withdrew, whereas China did not – in violation of our agreement.”
Del Rosario’s statement, though, is flawed. Neither the US nor China has admitted that there was such an agreement; only talks for such an agreement. Indeed, if there was such an agreement, would the “honest broker” US not have raised a ruckus that China reneged on an agreement it brokered?
Until his piece was posted in his website, del Rosario had not himself claimed that that there was an agreement with China for a simultaneous withdrawal of each country’s vessels from Panatag.
Sen. Antonio Trillanes 4th, appointed as back-channel envoy in that crisis, claimed there was no such agreement yet when del Rosario – and not Aquino – ordered the vessels out.
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.
“PNoy called me to inform me that our two BFAR (Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources) 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 Sec. 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.)”
Based on accounts of very credible sources, what actually transpired was as follows:
Fu Ying, China’s vice minister of Foreign Affairs in charge of Asia (who had been ambassador here from 1998 to 2000) met June 1 in Washington with Kurt Campbell, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, to discuss Aquino and del Rosario’s request for the Americans to intervene—even militarily, my sources claimed—in the Scarborough Shoal 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 (also known as Bajo de Masinloc) 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, the then US Ambassador to Manila Harry Thomas that very day told del Rosario that China had already agreed to a simultaneous withdrawal.
Middle of the night
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. With our vessels leaving what we claim as our territory, we have lost it – forever, as it were.
Neither the US, China nor even President Aquino, nor anybody else at the foreign affairs department—except del Rosario’s protégé, then Ambassador to the US Jose Cuisia—has confirmed that there was such an agreement.
It is del Rosario and del Rosario alone, who continues to claim that China agreed with the Philippines on a simultaneous withdrawal, as brokered by the “US, an honest broker.”
Did Campbell really tell their ambassador Thomas, to tell del Rosario that the Chinese agreed to withdraw from the shoal? Or did Thomas misinterpret his superior’s communication?
But diplomats are trained to get exactly what their headquarters ask them to relay to a host country. If unsure, an ambassador would request a written memorandum, especially on such an important episode as a stand-off in disputed seas that could even lead to a shooting war.
Or did the 73-year old del Rosario hear what he wanted to hear, as the stand-off had lasted for seven weeks, and he was crumbling under the tension?
Another interpretation would be that, unwilling to intervene, the US tricked the Aquino government into abandoning the shoal, in order to push the Philippines to file a case against China in an international body as a propaganda tack against the Asian superpower.
Indeed, the Aquino government’s suit against China was not just over the Philippines’ territorial disputes with it but over the superpower’s sweeping claim over the South China Sea, particularly its so-called “nine-dash line.” China asserts in its maps that this crudely sketched tongue-shaped line, even if undefined in terms of geographical coordinates, demarcates its territory in the South China Sea.
Del Rosario’s bungling of the Panatag issue is important as it explains his public detestation of China, as this conceals the fact that China didn’t really just grab the shoal from us. He and Aquino let go of it, making the Aquino presidency the first administration to lose Philippine territory it already had control of.
Because of his personal hurt over being hoodwinked—by China or by the US—into losing the Panatag Shoal for the Philippines, del Rosario has been relentless in his and his stable of salaried academics’ advocacy that our government adopt an aggressive anti-China stance.
Unfortunately for us, with the billions of pesos he’s amassed as one of the top executives of the Indonesian tycoon Anthoni Salim— other than Manuel V. Pangilinan, he is the only other Filipino director in the Hong Kong based First Pacific Co. Ltd.—del Rosario can bankroll the anti-Chinese propaganda through the “institute” he named after himself. They would even have a vast media empire to disseminate such propaganda: the Philippine Star and the Channel 5 group which Pangilinan controls.
What a country. A gang of big businessmen and executives are trying to control our most important foreign-policy stance, led by del Rosario who has a personal beef against China. And government doesn’t have its own independent think-tank. This is the kind of thing Congress should be investigating.
If not for President Duterte’s independent intellect and strength of character, the Philippines would have been steered by del Rosario, his big business gang, Fidel Ramos’ ideologue Jose Almonte, and Justice Antonio Carpio toward a disastrous, belligerent course against the inarguable superpower in Asia.
* Others in this series:
“Aquino, Del Rosario and media hid the loss of Panatag to China from the nation,” June 25, 2018
“Aquino, Trillanes blamed Del Rosario for Panatag loss,” June 20, 2018
“Yes, Senate must investigate how Aquino, Trillanes and Del Rosario lost Panatag,” June 18, 2018.
**Del Rosario is chairman of both Stratbase and Stratbase ADRi. ADRi’s co-chairman is Manuel V. Pangilinan, chief executive officer of First Pacific Co. Ltd., PLDT, and other huge firms in the Philippines that Indonesian tycoon Salim controls. Other tycoons in this outfit’s board of trustees are Cory Aquino’s nephew Antonio Cojuangco and Philip Romualdez, the husband of Philippine Daily Inquirer president Alexandra Prieto.
Stratbase reports that it is the Philippine partner of Bower Group, an American research and lobby group based in Washington, D.C. The head of Bower’s Korea operations was a former CIA analyst and deputy intelligence officer in the US National Security Council.
ADRi’s publication Spark is an anti-Duterte brochure, with the institute’s academic pretensions shed off by sweeping statements such as the President “shielding China from global criticism” and the economy under him confronting a “perfect storm.”