NOT a few people have been wondering why Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio has suddenly emerged just in the past few years as the de facto spokesman — and even ideologue — of the vociferous anti-China group over our territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea.
Indeed, Carpio had never before demonstrated any interest in geopolitics. His field was corporate law, having been the founder of what had been the most powerful and lucrative law firm for big businesses during the Fidel Ramos administration, and during part of Gloria Arroyo’s term.
Yet now he has shown so much passion against China’s claims in the South China Sea that he warns that one day, Chinese warships will be patrolling the region. Why, he even melodramatically says — and stretches his imagination so much — that fighting China for our claims in the area “is the 21st century equivalent of the battles that our forebears waged against Western and Eastern colonizers from the 16th to the 20th century.”
Carpio has never written a book, nor even a single article in legal journals. Yet in 2016 he wrote a 247-page e-book against the Chinese claims, profusely illustrated and with over 100 old maps. I can’t remember Carpio being quoted by the press or giving public speeches before. Since 2015 though, he has given 140 lectures, even to Filipinos in 15 countries, battering China’s claims in the South China Sea and commenting on the latest news on the territorial dispute.
About a year ago, a colleague of Carpio — who has been in the inner circles of past administrations — told me that “it was a fact” for him that it was retired general Jose Almonte, the national security adviser of Fidel Ramos, that was behind the senior associate justice’s “crusade” against Chinese claims in the West Philippine Sea. “He can’t say no to Joal,” the source said. He then related to me the details of why, which I cannot report, though, as it would be libelous and, unless I get documentary proof, hearsay.
I didn’t make this the topic of a column as this would be at the edge of an ad hominem argument, so I instead presented logical and information-based reasons to show that Carpio’s disputations versus China’s territorial claims were erroneous. (See for example my columns “Intellectual dishonesty the likes of Justice Carpio’s will keep us as US proxy in Asia,” May 25, 2018 and “Carpio continues to mislead us on South China Sea issue,” May 30, 2018. )
However. I have decided that it is an important allegation that Carpio could be simply Almonte’s mouthpiece. This should warn us to take Carpio’s claims on the South China Sea issue not just with a grain of salt but with extreme skepticism since Almonte’s own motives in this issue are suspect.
Views from Almonte
For starters, perhaps to send some kind of message to Almonte, Carpio in his e-book even admits that his views on the South China Sea territorial dispute were from Almonte.
In his book’s “Acknowledgments” section, Carpio wrote:
“Almonte gave me a comprehensive overview of the geopolitics in the Asia-Pacific region in the two decades since China seized Mischief Reef from the Philippines in 1995. Almonte has enlightened me, over monthly or bi-monthly dinners at his house, on the national security issues facing the Philippines from the time of the Vietnam War until the present and in the near future.”
It was president Aquino — as I have written extensively in several columns — who triggered the Scarborough Shoal crisis in April 2012 (when he sent a warship to the area, which put the Chinese on the high moral ground to move to physically possess it) and it was his foreign secretary, Albert del Rosario, who dropped the ball by ordering our coast guard ships out of the shoal.
Yet it is astonishing for Carpio to write that the wise Almonte had predicted seven years ago our loss of Scarborough to the Chinese:
“In mid-2011, I asked Almonte which shoal or reef would China seize from the Philippines next. He immediately answered without any hesitation: Scarborough Shoal. I completely agreed with him for two reasons. First, Scarborough Shoal is essential for China to complete a triangle of airbases to impose an Air Defense Identification Zone in the South China Sea. Second, an air and naval base in Scarborough Shoal will allow China to protect the Bashi Channel, which is China’s outlet to the Pacific for its nuclear-armed submarines. Such an air and naval base is a dagger pointed at Manila.
“My long-running conversations with General Almonte made me decide to embark on an advocacy — to convince the Philippine government to question the validity of China’s nine-dash line before an Unclos tribunal.”
Why should we care that Carpio could be merely Almonte’s mouthpiece?
For starters, Almonte has been so pro-American and close to US intelligence services — especially in his role as national security adviser during Ramos’ time — that many believe he has been in turn the mouthpiece of the American Deep State, which has been in near panic over China’s rise as a world power and its merging military hegemony in Asia.
In fact, Almonte himself in his autobiography Endless Journey: A Memoir, inadvertently reported the long-running rumor about his links with the Central Intelligence Agency, which apparently Marcos himself had heard.
Almonte in his book had narrated that during his three-year tour of duty with the Philippine Civic Action Group Vietnam during the civil war there – in which one of his duties was as liaison to US forces – he had befriended the Viet Cong and got them to commit not to harm Filipinos with the PhilcagV. He even wrote, astonishingly: “ I became embedded with the Viet Cong, even visiting their headquarters, what the Americans called the Central Office for South Vietnam.”
Almonte narrated that Marcos sent for him. “We spoke for about six hours…just the two of us. He interrogated me…He was brilliant. His thesis initially was that the group I was talking to were not true Viet Cong. They were CIA Viet Cong.” (My emphasis).
Almonte obviously didn’t get it. Marcos was telling him he suspects he’s with the CIA.
But the most important of Almonte’s past, which we should keep in mind when reading or listening to Carpio’s disputations over the South China sea issue, is his indignation against and personal frustrations over China’s moves in the area.
Almonte’s prestige as Ramos’ brilliant ideologue and spy chief was battered when China in 1994 and 1995 built structures on Mischief Reef, which the Philippines also claimed as part of its exclusive economic zone. Almonte was criticized for not being able to discover — or report to the country — that China had built the structures on the reef.
That China had done so was publicly revealed only when the late congressman Roilo Golez gave the press satellite photos of the structures. (Golez claimed he got the photos from his intelligence contracts abroad. I would discover that he got it from an open internet site.)
With criticisms that the Ramos government was helpless over China’s “intrusion,” Almonte organized in May 1995 an operation by which local and foreign press were ferried on a Navy ship of World War 2 vintage. When the ship got close to Mischief Reef, Huey helicopters brought on the ship flew the press over the dispute area to take photos.
It would have been a spectacular media operation, if not for the fact that the Western press highlighted the interpretation that the Philippines provoked a military encounter with Chinese ships that had raced to intercept the Navy ship.
But it was not only the Mischief Reef crisis that made Almonte hate the Chinese.
Almonte proposed and for a time got Ramos’ approval for the construction of lighthouses on Scarborough Shoal. “Putting lighthouses was a legitimate way to establish our presence and it was the least costly. We allocated about P74 million for this project. They were ready to be installed by the Department of Transportation and Communication and the military,“ Almonte wrote in his autobiography.
“However, the plan did not materialize,” Almonte narrated. “Apparently, new foreign affairs secretary Domingo (‘Jun’) Siazon convinced Ramos to discontinue it because it would anger China… Jun was nurturing plans to vie for the post of secretary general of the UN (United Nations) and China would be an important endorser.”
It was a painful episode for Almonte. (One chapter in his book was titled “Making Ramos President” and another, “The Baby-Sitter,” a reference to himself in his role as “taking care” of Rosemarie Arenas, the President’s mistress.)
He wrote: “This was the only time that Ramos didn’t follow our recommendation – and on a very critical issue.”
Almonte described in his book written in 2014 his intellectual paradigm with regard to China and the South China Sea: “If China controls the South China Sea, it will lead to its control of all the countries in the area: the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia and adjacent countries in the mainland of Southeast Asia — Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia.“
An accurate analysis or not, that is exactly the thinking of the superpower that had been hegemonic in Asia since World War 2 — the US. Is Almonte’s continuing anti-China crusade over the South China Sea territorial disputes his own, or that of superpower’s?
Almonte in the book, though, was rueful, saying: “I’ve said this often but it seems that only a few in the Philippine media and policy circles have picked it up.”
That’s no longer the case obviously, what with no other than a senior associate justice, who is even vying for the chief justice post, disseminating Almonte’s framework quite effectively, with his views even hogging newspapers’ banner-story headlines.
Almonte was indeed admired for his strategic brilliance.