THERE are very valid reasons to conclude so. Read on, you decide.
When Philippine and Chinese vessels in May 2012 were in a stand-off at Panatag Shoal, President Aquino’s foreign secretary Alberto del Rosario quite suddenly ordered the vessels of the Philippine Coast Guard and Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources to withdraw from the area. This is according to Sen. Antonio Trillanes 4th, an ardent supporter of Aquino at the time, who was his personal envoy to the Chinese to resolve the crisis.
The Philippine ships left June 3, but the Chinese vessels didn’t. Our vessels since then have been blocked from the area. That’s how we lost Panatag (also called Bajo de Masinloc and Scarborough Shoal).
Del Rosario’s own account of this episode, which he wrote in an article, is as follows: “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.”
Trillanes claimed that even Aquino himself was livid over del Rosario’s move. He wrote in his aide memoire, quoting Aquino: “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.) Del Rosario has not disputed Trillanes’ claims, which I first wrote about in 2016 and repeated in several columns.
There are two things that make del Rosario’s account highly implausible:
First, only del Rosario and his friend Jose Cuisia, the ambassador to the US at the time, have claimed that there was such an agreement. Aquino himself has never claimed that there was such an agreement.
And if there was indeed an agreement that the US itself mediated, wouldn’t the US have protested loudly to the world—especially as it was the mediator — that the Asian superpower didn’t keep its word, therefore confirming the American narrative that that nation can’t be trusted and intends to occupy the entire South China Sea by force and by subterfuge?
Second, by other accounts, it was Fu Ying, China’s vice minister of foreign affairs in charge of Asia (who had been ambassador here from 1998 to 2000) who met 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 — on June 1.
It is impossible for Fu to have agreed that day or even the next day (June 3, when the Philippines ships left the shoal) for the simultaneous withdrawal of Philippine and Chinese ships. Such a decision would have required many days to be studied and acted upon by her superiors in Beijing. After all, the standoff had already lasted for six weeks, and there was no huge urgency to end it.
So, what could have happened? Other than del Rosario’s account that China didn’t keep its word, there could be only two explanations:
The first explanation is that it was entirely del Rosario’s momentous boo-boo. He simply misheard or misunderstood what was relayed to him, according to our sources, by the US ambassador here at the time, Harry Thomas. Or, aged 73 then, del Rosario may have buckled under the pressure of the month-long stand-off, that he heard what he wanted to hear, which was for China to leave the shoal.
US hoodwinked PH
For various reasons, I tend to believe the following second possible explanation: It was the US, rather than China, which hoodwinked the Philippines to withdraw from the shoal, thus allowing China to grab it. The US told del Rosario there was an agreement when there wasn’t, only a proposed pact.
Del Rosario could easily debunk this explanation if he answers a very simple question: Who told him that the Chinese had already agreed to the simultaneous withdrawal? I was told it was US Ambassador Harry Thomas. (If it was Cuisia, then who told him, as the talks between Fu and Campbell were confidential?)
And why on earth would the US do this?
Because China’s takeover of Panatag painted it as the aggressor in the area.
For decades, the US wanted the world to believe that China’s so-called nine-dash line that claimed, though ambiguously, that it had sovereignty on waters of about a third of the South China Sea, had no legal basis.
But the US didn’t have any business to file a suit on that matter in any world court, as it didn’t have any territory or territorial claim in the area. China’s moves to build structures on the reefs it controls (it doesn’t have a single island in the Spratlys) may have given the US brass many sleepless nights, as in a few years, their armada patrolling the South China Sea had become very vulnerable to Chinese missiles stationed on those artificial islands.
US narrative vs China
The US needed to disseminate its narrative that China had become extremely aggressive in the South China Sea, which would put international public opinion on its side in case skirmishes were to break out between their forces.
However, because of China’s rise as an economic superpower, not one claimant — Vietnam, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, even us before — dared lock horns with China, especially through a court the decision, which of course could not be enforced. It could only be through an actual incident that China could be portrayed as an aggressor in the area. The Panatag episode was such an incident.
Because they lost Panatag in a very stupid way, Aquino and especially del Rosario could hide their blunder only by going on the offensive: through a case in an international body, even if only an arbitration court, against China. The arbitral court’s award — declaring the nine-dash line as having no basis — was exactly what the US wanted.
The US has been so skilled in this kind of maneuver, in the broad genre of so-called “false-flag “operations. In the Gulf of Tonkin incident, in 1964, a US warship entered North Vietnamese waters, which became the basis of a false but widely spread news in the US that the North Vietnamese had attacked two US ships. That molded American public opinion to support the escalation of US operations in Vietnam. More recently, the US astonishingly managed to propagate its false claim that Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction” which justified the US’ invasion of that unlucky country in 2002.
And what was the first event that triggered the entire Panatag Shoal crisis?
Aquino’s deployment of its biggest warship the BRP Gregorio del Pilar — which the US had refurbished and given to the Philippine Navy a year earlier — to Panatag Shoal, to assist in the arrest of Chinese fishermen. Because of that, China claimed the higher moral ground, claiming that “Philippine warships” were arresting helpless Chinese fishermen in small boats. The Chinese were even clever in that they didn’t deploy any warship to Panatag, and instead sent several civilian-government vessels and about 50 small fishing boats, its version of “people power” in the seas.
Did an American operative whisper to that President known to be fond of playing computer wargames on his Playstation, “Maybe time to try out your brand-new warship, Mr. President?”
Congress must find out how we really lost Panatag. The truth will point us the way to a foreign policy that serves the national interest. If my account above is correct, then we have been led by the nose by the US, which we cannot allow to continue.
The US’ Panatag plan isn’t over yet. Spy planes have been regularly flying over the shoal to determine if China is building structures on it, which would enhance the American narrative of a China as an imperialist power in the South China Sea. After four years though, cleverly, the Chinese haven’t.