Just go to court and pass EDCA, Americans responded
IF not for the US leaders’ pragmatism and cool-headedness, President Aquino 3rd and his foreign secretary Albert del Rosario could have dragged it into a war against China on the South China Sea, a conflict that could have even triggered a nuclear war between the two superpowers— just to cover up their bungling of the Scarborough Shoal crisis.
In April 2012, Chinese civilian-government and fishing vessels went to their fishermen’s succor at Scarborough Shoal (Bajo de Masinloc or Panatag Shoal) when the Philippine Coast Guard and Bureau of Aquatic Resources accosted them for alleged illegal fishing. Aquino ordered to the shoal the Navy’s biggest warship, acquired only a year earlier, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar to board the fishermen’s vessels to take them in.
That was a big boo-boo. China pounced on Aquino’s blunder by loudly protesting that the Philippines had “militarized” the dispute, and that “Philippine warships” were detaining its helpless fishermen.
Cleverly, China did not respond by sending its own warships, even as several of its modern frigates were on alert stand-by just over the horizon. It instead undertook a sea-borne version of people power by having over 60 Chinese fishermen’s vessels—escorted by some six civilian government vessels—to the shoal. The Chinese and Filipinos vessels were then locked in a stand-off that lasted for about six weeks from late April to May 2012, with each party aware that whoever blinks, or withdraws from the shoal, will lose it – forever, as it were.
Diplomatic sources here and abroad disclosed that Aquino and del Rosario begged the US to intervene in the conflict, by sending its warships to the area to send the message to China that it would defend the Philippines’ vessels if attacked.
Del Rosario and defense secretary Voltaire Gazmin rushed to Washington, D.C. on April 30, as the crisis that started on April 10 seemed to go against the Philippines, to meet with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. Del Rosario invoked Clinton’s statements a year earlier that the US would stand by its 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty that requires it to defend the Philippines in case of attack by any foreign power on its military forces.
Del Rosario even issued an official statement on May 9, 2012, a few days after his meeting with Clinton, in which he declared that “US officials have publicly declared four times that it would honor the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty that obliges American troops to help defend the Philippines if it comes under attack.”
The US embassy in reaction to del Rosario’s claim issued a statement saying that Clinton in their meeting did say that “the United States reaffirms our commitments and obligations under the Mutual Defense Treaty.” Clinton however in several statements instead emphasized that the “US does not take a position in territorial disputes between two countries.”
Clinton and even the US defense secretary did not respond to del Rosario’s demand for a categorical US commitment that it would come to the Philippines’ defense in case a shooting war breaks out in the Scarborough crisis.
We were blissfully oblivious of the Scarborough stand-off when it was happening, with the Yellow newspapers here successfully toning down the crisis, helped by the fact that the burning issue of the day was Aquino’s project to take down Chief Justice Renato Corona.
There was, however, a clear danger of war breaking out, as Aquino’s mishandling of the Scarborough crisis—reported in China as his deployment of “Philippine warships” against helpless Chinese fishermen—had stoked Chinese nationalist sentiment. “The leadership of the Communist Party of China would have even fallen if they appeared to be soft on the Philippines,” a diplomat said.
The Chinese of course got wind of del Rosario’s pleading for US military intervention, and escalated its rhetoric.
As has been its practice of sending its messages to the world, “editorials” of China’s state-run newspapers were practically calling for war against the Philippines over Scarborough. On April 22, 2012, the editorial of state-owned Global Times urged the Chinese government to engage the Philippines in a small-scale war to end the stalemate once and for all. It stated that “once war erupts, China must take resolute action and deliver a clear message to the outside world that it does not want a war, but definitely has no fear of it.”
On May 9, the People’s Liberation Army Daily ran a toughly worded editorial saying that China would not tolerate any violation of Chinese sovereignty on Scarborough Shoal. According to the editorial, “Not only will the Chinese government not agree, nor will the Chinese people, and the Chinese Army will disagree even more.” The flurry of threatening editorials from the PLA newspaper underscored its well-known hardline stance when it comes to territorial disputes.
Unreported in the country were media reports from Taiwan and Japan that alleged that China’s South Sea Fleet had forward-deployed a landing ship flotilla and a naval task force consisting of destroyers and amphibious ships in waters off the Philippines. There were also reports that China had already ordered two submarines to stand by at international waters off Scarborough Shoal.
US officials, however, rebuffed del Rosario and Gazmin’s pleadings. Clinton and Panetta were worried that the two Philippine officials kept pressing them to give a categorical answer to their question: Will the US military come to the Philippines’ rescue if one of their vessels is attacked by the Chinese?
That worried the US that Aquino might order his vessels to provoke the Chinese at Scarborough Shoal, in order to get the Americans into the fray, which could have thrown he situation completely out of control, to lead into a full-blown war between two nuclear powers.
That concern bolsters a narrative I discussed in my column last Friday that it was the US that hoodwinked del Rosario and Aquino into believing that there was an agreement brokered by the Americans for the Chinese to simultaneously withdraw with the Filipino vessels from Scarborough’s lagoon. There wasn’t an agreement, but merely a proposal for such, and del Rosario naively ordered our vessels out of Scarborough June 3.
Aquino meets Obama
When del Rosario realized the colossal blunder he made when he ordered the Philippine ships to leave the lagoon, which practically turned over Scarborough to the Chinese, he asked Aquino to request an urgent meeting with then President Obama for a last-resort move to convince the Americans to intervene. Obama reportedly told Aquino in so many words in their meeting on June 8: “We can’t and won’t go to war over this. Just file a case in court, and we’ll help you.”
Aquino of course obeyed Obama. His government filed an arbitration suit invoking the law of the seas at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in Hague, with a Washington D.C. firm Foley Hoag LLP, and a special team of American lawyers recommended by the State Department handling everything. The work of then Solicitor General Florin Hilbay and his staff was limited to photocopying the US lawyers’ documents.
The US also cleverly took advantage of the crisis to advance their interest. In the long discussions with their US counterparts in which del Rosario and Gazmin begged for US military intervention, US defense secretary Panetta pointed out that even if the US intervenes militarily, the logistical problem is that with the closure of US military bases in the country in 1991, the American military would find it difficult to supply its ships in the South China Sea. The US officials in effect told Aquino and his officials: “Next time you come running to us begging for our help, you should find a way for our troops to have a logistical base in your country.”
After that, Aquino rushed the passing of the so-called “Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement” that allows the US to rotate troops into the country for extended stays and to operate facilities and stock up war materiel on Philippine military bases. That was one of the most important of his priority bills that Aquino asked Congress to enact.