Deception and debacle, through two decades

MY new book, out next month, is entitled Debacle: The Aquino Regime’s Scarborough Fiasco and the South China Sea Arbitration Deception. To be frank, it will be such an eye-opener that I am hoping, in the spirit of Christmas, that those who will be exposed for their despicable actions in this sad episode of our history will not commit harakiri.

All my statements in this book will be backed by documents and testimonies, each footnoted as to their sources, as academic works require. If any of these are proven wrong, I will retire from column writing.

The following is a summary of the book by its editors, which will appear in the back cover:

For the first time since its independence, the Philippines lost a piece of its territory, Scarborough Shoal, tragically because of the colossal blunders of President Aquino 3rd himself and his administration. At the start of his term, Aquino 3rd marked out the People’s Republic of China as his enemy and continuously pilloried his country’s largest trading partner, a course that would have led to economic catastrophe if President Duterte had not reversed it.

The book cover.

In this groundbreaking work, based on solid data and erstwhile secret documents, premier investigative reporter Rigoberto D. Tiglao exposes the lies and deceptions surrounding the loss of Scarborough Shoal as well as the true nature of the Aquino regime’s arbitration case against China. While that administration sought to portray that “lawfare” as a way to get back Scarborough, it was in fact, a project to advance the ambitious business plans of a trio of tycoons, which jibed in the early years of US President Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” with the superpower’s scheme to restore its military bases in the Philippines in a new form and to undertake a devious propaganda machination to demonize China in the South China Sea dispute. This book also exposes how a local oligarchy in partnership with the US can be so powerful that it could use both local and Western media to conceal from both Filipinos and the world what the Aquino administration’s antagonistic stance and suit against China really were about.

And an excerpt from the Introduction:

One of the worst policies ever undertaken by any Philippine administration was the Aquino 3rd regime’s hostile stance towards China, which led to the loss of Philippine territory (Scarborough Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc) and to an expensive arbitration case purportedly to recover it. This not only dismally failed but had consequences that damaged the national interest.

If President Rodrigo Duterte had not shelved the arbitration results and if he had continued his predecessor’s belligerence towards the economic and military superpower in this part of the world, the Philippine economy would have fallen into a deep recession and consequently, to a period of political instability.

Outrageous was the portrayal by the Aquino regime and by that faction of the political-economic elite called the Yellows that the arbitration was a noble nationalist enterprise. It was actually intended to advance the interests of a trio of oligarchs, which coincided with the agenda of the United States to demonize the People’s Republic of China (PRC). The arbitration case was a colossal deception, and this book will expose all the lies and chicanery, disguised as patriotic acts involving this.

I make these assertions confidently after studying the issue since 2011 and reporting on what I found out in over 130 columns in the Manila Times. Not a single claim in those columns has ever been challenged by believers of the arbitration case.

I’ve had a special interest in the issue for personal reasons since May 1995. I first wrote on the South China Sea (SCS) dispute in 1994 when I was bureau chief of the Far Eastern Economic Review. Also, because of my rather extensive studies of US imperialism as the world’s scourge in the past century and a half, I have been wary of the mainstream and American portrayal of its purported adversary, China, as the bully and expansionist power in the region.

For most of my life as a reporter and editor for local publications, a correspondent for a foreign publication, and lastly a thrice-weekly columnist, I had become cognizant of the fact that the contentious political issues are always more complicated than the “black and white, good and evil,” framework used by local and international media. Worse, and often, the dominant narratives are those propagated by the US and the elites.

Afflicting most Filipinos has been the US viewpoints on international issues because of the 48 years of colonization of the Philippines, and even after its independence, the majority still think under the American cultural and ideological superstructure. Thus, if US media is anti-China, then the Philippine media (and consequently most of its citizens) are also uncritically anti-China. Such “colonial mentality” appallingly extends to domestic issues. US media and its government have been anti-Duterte; therefore much of elite local media have also been anti-Duterte.

During the Richard Nixon years (US president 1969-1974), the US had friendly relations with China, establishing full diplomatic relations and recognizing the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as the sole government of China, with Taiwan as just a part of it.

But when the PRC became an economic powerhouse in the early 1990s, the US started to view it as a rival for the world’s influence and eventually as an “adversary” not only in the economic sphere but also militarily and diplomatically. The enmity then became international media’s new template when it came to covering US-China relations: the détente was over.

In 1994, China occupied and built small structures on stilts in Mischief Reef, which was discovered only a year later. It came as a surprise even to analysts who had followed the SCS developments because it had been six years since China first asserted its claims in the Spratly Islands, when it occupied seven reefs in 1988 after a bloody battle with the Vietnamese in Johnson South Reef.

Mischief at Mischief Reef (May 1995). Author was in that chopper taking off from the reef, to fly over Mischief Reef. PRESS POOL

The administration of President Fidel Ramos raised a furor over the Chinese move on Mischief Reef as it became the Chinese-occupied feature closest to the Philippines’ mainland. The US and Western press condemned it as another Chinese move in its overall plan to grab the entire Spratly archipelago.

China claimed the structures were built to provide a refuge for fishermen from all nationalities during a storm. I interviewed to get China’s explanation from its ambassador to Manila at that time, Fu Ying, who would rise through the ranks to become the vice minister for foreign affairs and currently chairperson of the National People’s Congress’ foreign affairs committee. Setting aside formalities, Fu sat on the floor and laid out a huge map of China on the carpet, and stuck strictly to the [Chinese Communist] Party line that her country had indisputable sovereignty over the Spratly Islands.

It was my background and sources as a business reporter though that helped me discover why China suddenly built structures on Mischief Reef, which consists of rocks above water only during low tide.

The PRC occupied the reef in reaction to the Ramos government’s grant of a permit in May 1994 to local firm Alcorn Petroleum and the US company Vaalco Energy to explore oil in the Reed Bank (Recto Bank in Philippine maps) which China claims is part of its sovereign territory.

Alcorn

The Alcorn-Vaalco permit was given in secret but was announced by its chairman at an Alcorn stockholders’ meeting in order to boost its share prices — not an uncommon practice among listed oil exploration firms in Manila at the time. The Chinese protested the issuance of the permits, while Ramos’ energy secretary insisted the area was within Philippine territorial waters. But a few weeks later, his energy officials withdrew the permit, lamely explaining this was merely for “desktop” surveys, or a re-study of existing seismic surveys on the Reed Bank without any field operations.

Since there had been talks in early 1994 for a joint development in the Reed Bank between the PRC and the Philippines, the issuance of the secret permit to Alcorn-Vaalco convinced China that the Ramos government was working behind its back. It retaliated three months later by occupying and building small structures on Mischief Reef partly to send the message to Manila and Southeast Asia that it had not dropped its sovereignty claim over the entire Spratlys.

By occupying what had been a submerged reef, as a US Naval War College study put it, “China probably decided physically occupying Mischief Reef would place Beijing in a better position to protect its petroleum rights in the eastern half of the Spratlys… It is also well-placed to perform surveillance of any future oil exploration missions sponsored by rival governments in the future.”

The Ramos government moved to rouse world public opinion against China’s occupation of Mischief Reef. In May 1995, it undertook an operation to ferry 39 mostly foreign journalists on World War 2-era tank landing ships (LST) to the reef, who were then flown on Vietnam-era UH-1 (“Huey”) helicopters to fly over the structures and take photos of the structures.

Ramos’ security officials explained this was necessary to inform the world about what was happening in Mischief Reef and to pressure China to vacate it. Indeed, the Mischief Reef photos were splashed all over global media, with dramatic footage of journalists flown on Huey choppers to buzz the Chinese structures.

I was one of the journalists who flew over Mischief Reef on the helicopters that were crudely marked with the word “PRESS” using duct tape.

At the time, it felt that it was a privilege to have joined the group, to have gone to the disputed Spratlys and seen for myself the much talked about Chinese structures that from above looked to be octagonal in shape and had both wooden and metal stilts for support.

Years later, a member of Ramos’ security cluster that had planned the operation told me that one major “concern” raised in their deliberations over the operation was the possibility that there would be Chinese soldiers on the structure who would fire at the helicopters, to shoot it down together with all the journalists. After all, there was the possibility that a Chinese stationed on the reef wouldn’t understand the English word “PRESS” taped to the fuselage of the combat helicopters.

Risk

Ramos’ officials obviously felt the risk was worthwhile. After all, it was a strategy of the same kind that Ramos and then Defense Secretary Juan Ponce Enrile used in 1986, when they called in the foreign press to help defend them in Camp Crame and to deter Marcos forces from immediately bombing the area.

Fortunately for me and my media colleagues, the Chinese didn’t fire at the helicopters. A Chinese fishing vessel, however, blocked the LST when it tried to get closer to the reef, in order, I was told, for the Hueys to save fuel.

After half an hour of that stand-off, the LST carrying the journalists suddenly turned around: the captain pointed toward the horizon to what he said were two Chinese frigates, puffing black smoke as they rushed to the scene.

To this day, Ramos’ and the US media’s narrative of China suddenly occupying Mischief Reef as the start of its “creeping invasion” of the South China Sea remains dominant.

Eighteen years later, it would be the same allure of the Reed Bank as a source of huge hydrocarbon deposits that would drive another Yellow administration to demonize and quarrel with China, on a much more intense, yet foolish level. This led to the debacle of the loss of Scarborough Shoal as well as the colossal blowback of China building huge artificial islands on its seven reefs in the Spratlys.

Facebook: Rigoberto Tiglao

Twitter: @bobitiglao

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Dorina Rojas

    Bring them all in Sir. And teach them how to write as academics should do. I am learning a lot from you I wish I could afford your books. Are you offering special discounts to seniors? Thank you.

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