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Trillanes: Aquino and Del Rosario lost Panatag Shoal to China

I AM publishing in full, for the sake of truth and as material for historians, the secret aide memoire that Sen. Antonio Trillanes 4th wrote in August 2012 on his activities as President Aquino’s special envoy to China to negotiate for an end to the stand-off between our vessels and that nation’s in Scarborough Shoal, which we call Bajo de Masinloc or Panatag Shoal.

The crisis broke out when Aquino sent the Philippine Navy warship BRP Gregorio del Pilar to assist our Coast Guard in arresting Chinese fishermen who allegedly were illegally fishing in the area. The Chinese responded by sending several vessels of its Chinese Maritime Surveillance (CMS), a civilian agency and a number of private fishing vessels to the area to prevent the PCG vessels from arresting the fishermen. China raised a howl, claiming that the Philippine warship had militarized the competing claims on the shoal.

A stand-off ensued as both China and the Philippines refused to order their vessels out of the area, realizing that whoever left the area in effect abandoned its control — and effective ownership of the shoal. Both countries have not made a move before this episode to claim the shoal, with fishermen from the Philippines and China using the area around it for fishing, and for the lagoon inside the shoal as a refuge from storm.

Because of Aquino’s bungling — or according to this account, del Rosario’s order for our vessels to leave the shoal, without the President’s authorization — we lost Panatag. Forever, as it were as no way would the Chinese leave it now, for its leadership to be accused of giving up a territory it already controls. 

Trillanes should be credited for putting on paper what he saw as an eyewitness to and participant in the events that took place that lost for the Republic Bajo de Masinloc, the first ever territory we lost since the 1970s.

Trillanes however demonstrated his lapdog subservience to Aquino by not publicly disclosing himself that because of del Rosario’s belligerence with China and Aquino’s incompetence, we lost Panatag Shoal.

His refusal to do so is a serious wrongdoing considering that while China has become our biggest trading partner and the superpower in our part of the world, del Rosario and even a leading opinion-maker like Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio have been demonizing it — using the Panatag episode as their “proof”—as the new evil empire in our region.

I challenge del Rosario — who can order his academic mercenaries in the anti-China propaganda outfit he named after himself which pretends to be a research institute — to tell us if Trillanes is lying in the account that follows, and to report his version of the events. He owes it to the country to give his interpretation of how we lost Panatag. He has never really explained what happened.

I also challenge Carpio — who wants to head the state’s prime agency devoted to establishing the truth, the Supreme Court — to respond to Trillanes’ account since in his e-book on the South China Sea he gives a very one-sided explanation of how we lost Panatag Shoal intended to demonize China by claiming it violated an agreement:

“In 2012, China seized Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines. From April to June 2012, there was a stand-off between Philippine and Chinese vessels around Scarborough Shoal. The Americans brokered a mutual withdrawal to which both sides agreed. The Philippine vessels withdrew but the Chinese vessels did not.”

The following paper of Trillanes presents an entirely different account from what Carpio and del Rosario have been claiming.

I have been wondering though if his providing me with this report was his way of easing his conscience for betraying the country for not disclosing himself, because of his subservience to Aquino, the truth on how we lost Panatag Shoal to China.

Trillanes’ narrative, titled “Summary of Backchannel Talks (12 May to 16 August 2012)”: 

“During the first week of May 2012, while in a meeting with Executive Secretary Ochoa, the rising tension in the Scarborough Shoal was brought up and he asked if I could help open a back channel with China. I told him that I could reconnect with my contact in Beijing, which I established during my study visit there last November 2011. However, I specifically requested that it should be authorized by the President.

ES then told me that he would take care of it and that PNoy would probably approve it since, at that time PNoy had already called for Filipino-Chinese tycoons and asked for their help in finding a line to Beijing.

Trillanes claims Aquino and del Rosario are to blame for the nation’s loss of Panatag Shoal to China.

The status quo then, more or less, was: China had 31 fishing boats and around 50 dinghies inside the shoal and 10 CMS vessels positioned at the vicinity of the shoal; while we had 2 Coast Guard vessels positioned just outside the shoal and 1 BFAR vessel inside the shoal. On other fronts, our banana exports were suddenly quarantined in China; Chinese tourists have been discouraged to visit our country; and the loan incurred by the GMA administration for the North Rail Project was being called.

After my meeting with ES, I immediately arranged for the first exploratory meeting which was set in Hong Kong on May 12. I then informed PNoy about it and asked for his directives and parameters for the talks. His message was that our country wants to resolve the stand-off peacefully and diplomatically. At the same time, he requested that, for confidence-building, our bananas should be re-admitted and that there should be a moratorium on the North Rail loan. In sum, my mission as backchannel negotiator was limited to the de-escalation of the tensions in the Scarborough Shoal. It never touched on the overall foreign policy towards China.

The two episodes when we lost territory: The first by gullible soldiers, the second by the President and his foreign secretary, at least according to a senator who was a witness.

During the exploratory meeting, I delivered PNoy’s message and the Beijing negotiators likewise delivered an almost identical message of wanting to resolve the stand-off peacefully and diplomatically. They also received the confidence- building requests and asked for a little time to get the approval of Beijing. After 24 hours, they informed me that the bananas can now enter China and, as for the loan, our finance officials can now go to Beijing so that the loan could be restructured. I relayed this development to PNoy and told him that Beijing only requested that he delegate to his subordinates the issuance of statements in relation to the stand-off so that the issue would be downgraded. Besides, they told me that his counterpart, then President Hu Jinato, wasn’t issuing statements directly. PNoy agreed with this request.

For the next two weeks, confidence-building measures were exchanged largely focused on toning down the rhetoric on both sides and arrangements for the withdrawal of ships and lifting of the travel sanctions on the Chinese tourists. However, around May 30, a skirmish happened inside the shoal between the BFAR vessel and the Chinese fishing boats.

PCG claimed that the fish markers were being placed inside the shoal by the fishermen so they removed them. The Chinese claimed that they were fishing near the fish markers, our PCG troops (aboard the BFAR vessel) pointed assault rifles at them thereby forcing them to call for help to the Chinese Marine Surveillance vessels. Thus, 2 CMS vessels entered. With this, the tensions rose once again.

PNoy then directed me to work on the sequential withdrawal of government ships inside the shoal. However, on the morning of June 4, PNoy called me to inform that our BFAR vessel has already left the shoal but China has reneged on the agreement of simultaneous withdrawal of ships so 2 CMS vessels are still inside.

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. He told me that Sec. Del Rosario told him about the agreement reached in Washington. This time I asked him 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.” Anyway, PNoy said the situation is grave because he won’t be able to leave for Washington while the two CMS vessels are still inside the shoal.

Hearing this, I immediately contacted Beijing negotiators and told them that their ships need to leave the shoal as soon as possible or else PNoy would cancel his trip and he would close the backchannel. Beijing immediately responded and said that one CMS vessel would leave at 1700H that same day while the other CMS ship would leave after 48 hours.

They said they needed to do this to project to the Chinese public that they were not pressured into leaving the shoal. I reported this to the President and he had me on speakerphone during an emergency cabinet meeting and I advised him to proceed with his scheduled trip at 1300H and if the Chinese reneged on their word, he would be informed while on flight and he can then order his plane to turn around. PNoy agreed with the arrangement and told me that ES Ochoa would be the OIC in relation to the Scarborough stand-off while he is away.

At 1706H of June 4, I was informed by Beijing that the CMS vessel has left the shoal. I the informed ES about this and the same was relayed to PNoy. He then told me that he gave explicit instructions to the PCG not to follow any order from Secretary Del Rosario.

On June 6, as agreed upon, the other CMS vessel left the shoal. Around June 10, PNoy informed me that the BFAR vessel was ordered to proceed to Subic to undergo repairs and directed me to ask Beijing to reciprocate. I then informed the Beijing negotiators about this and they immediately responded by sending back two CMS vessels and 14 fishing boats to China.

On June 15, PNoy informed me again that he has ordered the pull-out of the two remaining PCG ships from the shoal citing the incoming typhoon as the reason and directed me to ask Beijing to reciprocate. I immediately informed the Beijing negotiators about this development and again, they immediately responded by sending back all the remaining fishing boats and dinghies to China. Only eight CMS vessels remain at this time.”

(To be continued on Wednesday)


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