PERHAPS something useful could come out of former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario’s pathetic “look-I-am-bullied” publicity stunt last week to portray China as an Evil Empire, when it refused to allow him into Hong Kong.
It gives another opportunity to expose again the Yellow President’s former foreign affairs secretary as the person who directly lost Philippine territory to the Chinese on June 3, 2012 in the so-called Scarborough Shoal stand-off that lasted for nearly two months. We have to know what really happened, which will allow us to be more circumspect in our view of China.
It was called a ‘stand-off” as Chinese and Philippine vessels were in the crucial lagoon of the shoal for eight weeks, after the former stopped an attempt by our warship BRP Gregorio del Pilar to arrest Chinese fishermen who were allegedly illegally fishing there. Neither side would leave as to do so meant abandoning the area, thereby losing sovereignty over it.
It is a testament to the power of oligarchs and the hold of media they control on people’s minds that del Rosario continues to have the gall to even appear in public and say that we lost what we call Panatag Shoal (also Bajo de Masinloc) because the Chinese reneged on an agreement for both sides’ vessels to withdraw from the shoal simultaneously.
There was no such agreement. He was fooled by a US official that there was.
He gullibly believed on June 2, 2012 US Assistant Secretary Kurt Campbell’s claim that he got the Chinese to agree to withdraw their vessels from Panatag, so that he ordered our two vessels out of the shoal. (Campbell was then Obama’s assistant state secretary for Asia, with a career in US military and security agencies.)
Of course the “stand-off” was resolved after that as one party had backed down – us. After that, the Chinese in effect sealed the shoal’s crucial lagoon: We lost a piece of territory to the Chinese for the first time because of an administration’s bungling.
Plain common sense tells us that it is impossible for such an agreement on such an important crisis—and on a sovereignty issue—to have been made by one Chinese official, and in one meeting, without even consulting with her superiors. Campbell, who retired from government service in 2013, could have raised a howl that China had reneged on an agreement that he had brokered. He hasn’t.
In his 2016 book, The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia, his only mention of the episode was: “The Philippines’ ten-week standoff with China ultimately resulted in its loss of the Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by both countries.”
It was del Rosario’s inexperience in foreign-affairs matters, his gullibility, or his unquestioning trust in the US that made him believe Campbell, and so lose Philippine territory.
Since that time no Filipino government ship has been able to enter the shoal, now occupied by Chinese government civilian vessels in duty-rotation, as well as by Chinese fishing boats. China has imposed a 15-nautical mile restriction perimeter around the shoal, and prevents any vessel from going into the shoal’s lagoon without its permission.
The Philippine pull-out on that date was disclosed by the Chinese foreign ministry’s spokesman Liu Weimin in a statement on June 9, 2012. He said:
“Since April 10 when Philippine warships harassed Chinese fishermen, which caused the Huangyan Island incident, while making solemn representations with the Philippine side, China has also sent government vessels to the area for regulation, which made the Philippine side withdraw most of its ships, except for one government vessel left in the lagoon. The remaining vessel finally left the lagoon on June 3.”
Aquino’s government kept this turn of events secret. It would be two weeks later, on June 17 that del Rosario told the press: “Last night (June 16), President Aquino ordered both of our ships to return to port due to increasing bad weather.” He claimed that China had agreed to pull out all of its vessels in the lagoon. “We are waiting for them to comply with their commitment,” he said.
Aquino kept waiting for months, and it was only in February the next year, in order to explain why the arbitration case was being filed against China, did he and del Rosario admit to the country that we had lost Bajo de Masinloc – that the suit was a last resort to recover it.
It was Sen. Antonio Trillanes 4th who also disclosed that the last Philippine vessel left two weeks earlier on June 3. Aquino had appointed Trillanes in May as his personal envoy to resolve the crisis through secret talks with the Chinese Communist Party leaders, without informing del Rosario. Aquino allegedly had lost confidence in del Rosario, feeling that he was too pro-American and that he had a belligerent attitude towards the Chinese that he would not work on a resolution favorable to both countries.
Trillanes told Aquino that the Chinese agreed on a simultaneous withdrawal of the Chinese ships and the Philippine vessels. Trillanes wrote in his aide-memoire on the crisis:
“PNoy then directed me to work on the sequential withdrawal of government ships inside the shoal. However, on the morning of 04 June, 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.’ (That’s why I scolded Albert why he ordered the BFAR vessel to leave the shoal without my knowing it.)
“PNoy called me to inform me that our two BFAR 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.”
Other reports* give credence to Trillanes. One of these is even in a book that is so much of a puff piece for del Rosario that he most likely funded and provided many of its contents. The book’s narrative on the episode is based on the book author’s interview with del Rosario himself and the then Philippine ambassador to the US Jose Cuisia. It reads:
“Thousands of miles away from the turmoil in the shoal, in Washington, D.C., Kurt Campbell was closely watching the crisis between China and the Philippines unfold. He was Assistant Secretary at the State Department, the top diplomat in charge of Asia. ‘He [Campbell] took the initiative to talk to Fu Ying while she was in Washington D.C.,’ Jose Cuisia, then the Philippines’ ambassador to the US, recalled.
‘He was the one who approached me suggesting that we find a solution to ease the tension in the South China Sea.’ Fu Ying was China’s vice foreign minister for Asia and one of the officials deeply familiar with the Philippines where she was once ambassador.
‘Kurt was talking to me and the Chinese ambassador [in Washington] and I, in turn, would convey to Secretary [Albert] del Rosario his proposal,’ Cuisia said. Campbell also called Del Rosario in Manila to inform him that he was ‘brokering an arrangement which would break the impasse,’ Del Rosario confirmed.
‘With [the] typhoon season fast approaching, the US tried to broker a resolution. By the end of the meeting, The US side believed they had an agreement for both sides to withdraw. The following week, the Philippine ships left the Scarborough Shoal and returned home. The Chinese, however, stayed in the area.’ Cuisia recounted: ‘When the Chinese did not fulfill their commitment to pull out, I got a call from Albert [del Rosario] asking me why had the Chinese had not pulled out.’
‘I, in turn, called Kurt and he suggested we give the Chinese some time… Fu denied there had been any deal between her and US diplomats in 2012’.”
Anyone just a bit familiar with the nature of negotiations between countries, the Chinese decision-making process, and the circumstances of the Scarborough stand-off would laugh at Cuisia and del Rosario’s claim that Campbell got the Chinese to agree to the pullout.
“Any scenario based on the PRC agreeing to US mediation in its dealings with the Philippines is, for lack of a nicer word, horsepucky,” China observer Peter Lee wrote.
“The PRC’s detestation of internationalization of its one-sided scrum with the Philippines is a byword in Chinese diplomacy. Maybe as a courtesy, Fu agreed to transmit the US proposal back to Beijing; most likely, the leadership’s decision would have been to reject any US involvement in the matter.”
So why would the US, through Campbell, fool del Rosario to lose Scarborough?
Because the US knew, and in fact had a game plan for this, that del Rosario and Aquino would be prodded after that to file a case in an international venue against China, ostensibly in an attempt to recover Scarborough. The reality though is that while the arbitration tribunal’s decision cannot be enforced—and that it could not and did not rule on the sovereignty issue over Scarborough or any other disputed territory in the South China Sea—it was a colossal propaganda that made China appear to be a bully which ignores the international rule of law.
*These accounts are in:
— Dyer, Geoff, 2014 “US strategists face dilemma over Beijing claim in South China”, The Financial Times https://www.ft.com/content/b2176dea-0732-11e4-81c6-00144feab7de
— Tordesillas, Ellen. 2012. https://news.abs-cbn.com/-depth/09/20/12/back-channels-trillanes-us-and-pangilinan
— Green Michael et al. May 2017. “Case 3: The Scarborough Shoal Standoff, Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia: The Theory and Practice of Gray Zone Deterrence,” Center for Strategic and International Studies.