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How a US diplomat fooled Aquino and del Rosario into losing Panatag Shoal

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Last of 2 parts

THE first part of how the country lost Panatag Shoal (Bajo de Masinloc, Scarborough Shoal, Huangyan to the Chinese ) in 2016 was the subject of my column last Monday, April 24. This second part narrates how a US State Department official fooled President Aquino 3rd and his foreign secretary, Albert del Rosario, into abandoning those rich fishing grounds.

The unedited version of this narrative is in my 2022 book Debacle: The Aquino Regime’s Scarborough Fiasco and the South China Sea Arbitration Deception, in which I provide sources and documentation for my assertions, none of which have been challenged by those mentioned in it. Knowing what really happened in this sad episode of our history will enlighten us on how the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) came about. Shortened version follows:

After seven weeks of the stand-off between Chinese and Philippine vessels at Bajo de Masinloc that broke out April 2012 the then Philippine ambassador to the US, Jose Cuisia, told Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario in June that US assistant secretary of state for Asia Kurt Campbell had informed him that he had reached an agreement with China: It would withdraw its ships simultaneously with those of the Philippines. Cuisia said that Campbell himself also called del Rosario in Manila to inform him of the same thing.

Del Rosario told President Aquino about the alleged agreement, and the Philippine vessels were ordered out of the shoal. That in effect handed over Scarborough Shoal to the Chinese who control it to this day.

The Chinese foreign ministry’s spokesman announced on June 9, 2012 in his regular press conference: “Since April 10 when Philippine warships harassed Chinese fishermen, which caused the Huangyan Island incident, 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.”

In his aide-memoire on the crisis, then senator Antonio Trillanes β€” whom Aquino officially designated as his special envoy to resolve the crisis β€” narrated: “PNoy (Aquino) 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 me that our Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAAR) vessels had 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.”

What agreement are you talking about? US’ Campbell and China’s Fu. PHOTOS FROM THEIR GOVERNMENTS

Agreement

“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. The President told me that Sec. [Albert] del Rosario told him about the agreement reached in Washington.” “I asked PNoy: ‘If the agreement was simultaneous withdrawal, why did we leave first?’ PNoy responded: ‘Kaya nga sinabihan ko si Albert kung bakit niya pinalabas ‘yung BFAR na hindi ko nalalaman (That’s why I asked Albert why he ordered the BFAR vessels to leave without my permission)’.”

Trillanes narrated: “Around 10 June, PNoy informed me that the remaining BFAR vessel was ordered to proceed to Subic to undergo repairs and directed me to ask Beijing to reciprocate. On 15 June, PNoy informed me again that he had ordered the pullout of the 2 remaining PCG (Philippine Coast Guard) ships from the shoal, citing an incoming typhoon as the reason, and directed me to ask Beijing to reciprocate.”

It was only this second phase of the withdrawal which del Rosario reported in local media: “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.

Withdrawal

The commandant of the Philippine Coast Guard Vice Admiral Edmund C. Tan confirmed the second phase of the withdrawal, that Aquino ordered him to direct the two remaining PCG vessels at Scarborough Shoal to take shelter in Subic Bay “from an impending typhoon which was forecast to hit the area directly.”

Tan narrated: “I was made to understand by PNoy and Sec. del Rosario that there was already an agreement between China and the Philippines brokered by the US to simultaneously withdraw from the area, using the typhoon as the reason to ‘save face’.”

“Unfortunately, when we were about to go back to Panatag Shoal after the typhoon, President Aquino directed us to stand by and hold our going back there,” Tan disclosed. He said Aquino’s order was given to him directly by Aquino through both text message and a cellphone call.

Were the PCG vessels ever ordered back to Scarborough? Tan replied: “No more orders from the President.”

Arbitration

Only in February the following year, in order to explain the reason for the arbitration case filed Jan. 22, 2013 against China, did Aquino and del Rosario admit to the public that they had lost Scarborough Shoal β€” and that the suit was a last resort to recover it.

There was no such agreement for a simultaneous withdrawal of their vessels between the Philippines and China. Assistant state secretary Campbell lied. The Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei in his regular press briefing on June 18, 2012, denied that China made any agreement: “We wonder where the so-called China’s commitment of ‘withdrawing ship’ came from.”

Only a brief meeting was undertaken between Campbell and then Chinese vice minister for foreign affairs Fu Ying* (a former ambassador to Manila) in a Virginia hotel a few days earlier in which the stand-off was discussed β€” among other things not related to the crisis.

Denied

Fu has denied there was an agreement. “I do not know what agreement you are referring to. The Chinese vessels did not leave the area because they feared the Philippines might double-cross them,” the London newspaper Financial Times quoted her as saying. “All China is doing is to keep an eye on the island for fear that the Philippines would do it again.”

It is highly improbable that Fu would commit her country to such an agreement, after only one meeting with a US official, and over a sensitive and controversial issue that had enraged even ordinary Chinese. It has also been the adamant stance of China that the US cannot participate in negotiations for the settlement of its disputes with other countries, especially those involving territorial matters.

Indeed, only the most incompetent diplomat and those who have no experience in international negotiations such as Cuisia and del Rosario (who were both corporate executives before they joined the Aquino government) would have assumed that Fu had the authority at that secret meeting to commit her country to such a crucial decision. China β€” as all countries do β€” have a strict hierarchical system for deciding on a course of action.

Campbell was the architect of the Obama administration’s “Pivot to Asia” program, who would be appointed nine years later as US President Joseph Biden’s National Security Coordinator for Indo-Pacific. He himself has never claimed there was such an agreement, even during the period when he returned to civilian life.

Pivot

Even in Campbell’s 2016 book, The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia, his only mention of that episode was a single sentence: “The Philippines’ ten-week standoff with China ultimately resulted in its loss of the Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by both countries.”

Aquino, del Rosario and Cuisia have insisted that China agreed for a simultaneous withdrawal. Del Rosario in an article claimed: “We were approached by the US, an honest broker, for both China and the Philippines to agree to a simultaneous withdrawal of ships from the shoal. We therefore agreed. At the appointed time, we withdrew, whereas China did not β€” in violation of our agreement.” “Duplicitous itong mga Intsik,” Cuisia said in a television interview. But he never talked to the Chinese, only to an official of China’s adversary (a term even US officials use), the United States of America.

Cuisia and del Rosario have not shown any aide memoire, notes of the meeting, or a draft agreement that are de rigueur or taken as standard procedure in these kinds of sensitive negotiations. Not even the US government has gone on record to claim that the Chinese reneged on an agreement to leave Scarborough Shoal together with the Philippines.

Afraid

Why would the United States, the Philippines’ trusted “big brother,” fool Aquino 3rd and his officials so that the incident would lead to the loss of Scarborough Shoal?

Trillanes gave one reason: “The Americans were so afraid that with the escalation of tensions, there would be miscalculations [by either country], and they would be drawn into a war on election year (US presidential elections were held in November 2012).” The Americans, of course, had no way to get the Chinese to leave the shoal without provoking a military conflict, which could lead to a nuclear war with China. But because Aquino and del Rosario trusted the Americans so much, they were so gullible to abandon Scarborough Shoal.

The US found a big boon from the Philippine debacle however. It bolstered its propaganda that China is an expansionist power in the region, out to take control of the entire South China Sea through what clever American propagandists popularized as its “salami-slicing” strategy.

The loss of Scarborough Shoal paved the way for another phase in the US campaign against China, the filing of a case by the Aquino government in 2014 against China β€” even if only as an “arbitration” β€” purportedly to recover Scarborough Shoal.

The “arbitration” actually was an elaborate propaganda scheme that cost the Philippines a billion peso in US lawyers’ fees. While the rulings of the three-man panel (all designated by the Philippines as China refused to participate in it) were portrayed as affirming many of the Philippines’ claims in the South China Sea. These were empty declarations as the suit was invoked under the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, which has no authority to rule on sovereignty disputes between nations, but only on the validity of claims on maritime areas.

However, the suit was turned by the US into a powerful propaganda and very inarguable legal tool since the panel declared that most of the waters in the South China Sea, even in the disputed Spratlys, were international waters β€” which therefore the US warships were free to patrol.

The suit, however, had a huge blowback for the US. China responded to the suit through that classic geopolitical strategy “establishing the facts on the ground”: It undertook colossal reclamation work that built up the reefs they had occupied since 1988 into artificial islands, on which China constructed ports, airstrips and buildings that they could turn into a military facility overnight. In a year and half’s time China’s holdings in the South China Sea were the largest among claimant states. The seven reefs it had occupied since 1988 were transformed into unsinkable aircraft carriers, built at an estimated enormous cost of tens of billions of US dollars.

While the US could not do anything about China’s unprecedented move as the Chinese claims these reefs are part of their sovereign territory, the Americans exploited this development to claim that the Asian superpower has militarized the South China Sea.

Americans also exploited the Scarborough debacle to scare the Philippines of an alleged Chinese expansionism that would soon engulf the Philippines. According to Trillanes, Henry Bensurto Jr., del Rosario’s deputy on the South China Seas issue, told a Cabinet meeting in which several senators and representatives were present, that the “annexation” of the shoal by China would be used as a springboard to claim the entire western Luzon.

At the end of the day, because Aquino and del Rosario were fooled into abandoning Bajo de Masinloc, the US scared the Aquino 3rd administration that it agreed to the restoration of US military bases in the Philippines on April 2014, in the form of the euphemistically called Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. That executive agreement allows American military forces to use private and government airports, as well as army camps and naval bases, as platforms for war in Asia.

The Americans started way back in 2012 its brainwashing project for the restoration of US military bases here β€” at the cost of the Philippines losing Panatag Shoal so physically close to its mainland.


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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Alex Santos

    The american govt officials have forked tongue, the things that they tell you is the opposite of the things they do. They have fooled the Filipinos since our revolt against spain and until now there are still gullible officials in our side that believe that americans have the best interest of our country. They have been so dishonest for so many decades and to so many countries around the world. They even spied on their close allies, so how do you trust such nation?

  2. Dorina S. Rojas

    The title should be How a US Diplomat Fooled Filipino Top Officials Including the President or How We Gave Away Panatag Shoal Due to Stupidity of National Officials Including the President. When was the last time the US established its military bases or camps in a country and the host country was not involved in a war but the US leaving the scene unscathed, unaffected and blaming others for what happened? Of course, the statements in this article will never be challenged but I won’t be surprised if the US will blame the local media for whatever negative effects on our country by accusing Mr. Tiglao et al of peddling lies. After all, Maria La Fea Ressa is with them.

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