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PH did promise to remove BRP Sierra Madre from Ayungin

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PRESIDENT Joseph Estrada did promise in 1999 to remove the BRP Sierra Madre, which his Navy deliberately grounded on Ayungin (Second Thomas Shoal). In the instances when the governments of Estrada and later of President Benigno Aquino 3rd were reminded of that commitment by the Chinese, they claimed that technical difficulties prevented them from removing the landing ship, tank (LST) Sierra Madre.

This is an indisputable fact. The Foreign Affairs department is shamelessly irresponsible in its refusal to correct the claims of such ignorant jingoists as National Security Council spokesman Jonathan Malaya and Coast Guard official Jay Tarriela.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was more careful and instead said, “I am not aware of such agreement. If there was, I rescind it as of this moment.”

While the commitment was solely verbal, it was mentioned in several documents. The succeeding administrations after Estrada did not claim that there was no such promise. The denial of such a promise by Malaya, a former interior undersecretary, is the first to be made by a government official of the commitment. The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has not officially denied that such a promise was made to the Chinese.

That there was such an agreement is reflected in confidential official memoranda by DFA officials.

Memorandum

In his April 23, 2013 memorandum to President Aquino 3rd, marked “confidential,” then Foreign Affairs secretary Albert del Rosario reported that three ranking Chinese officials met on different occasions from April 11 to April 17 with different DFA officials. He wrote:

“On the three occasions, the Chinese side said that the Philippine Navy vessel BRP Sierra Madre on the pretext of being stranded, was ‘illegally grounded’ on Second Thomas Shoal. The Chinese side claimed that Philippine authorities promised China that they would immediately remove the stranded vessel, but they have not done so to this day.

“The Chinese side highlighted that the Philippines had not honored this commitment. It has repeatedly made representations to the Philippines to honor its commitment. They said that fourteen years have passed and China ‘has given enough time to the Philippines, and China has been very patient’.”

Del Rosario totally did not respond to this Chinese claim in his memorandum, and did not inform the president whether that claim of a promise was true or not. Instead, he recommended that the government adopt a message that ignores the Chinese claim and instead asserts that the “Philippines has been in long, continuous, peaceful, uninterrupted, and effective possession of the shoal under international law. Accordingly, the Philippines is and should be able to do whatever claimant countries have done or have been doing in the occupied features.”

If there was no Philippine promise to tow away the vessel, wouldn’t del Rosario have told Aquino that the Chinese were lying, especially since the main message they sent through three venues was that it was time for the Philippines to fulfill its commitment? There wasn’t even that line in his memo that prevaricators often use: “I am not aware of…”

Confidential

A year later, in a March 7, 2014 “confidential” memorandum to del Rosario, then ambassador to Beijing Erlinda Basilio relayed the statements by a ranking Chinese official made in a meeting with three of her officers. She reported the Chinese claims:

“In 1999, the Philippines illegally ran aground a warship in Ayungin, and immediately China repeatedly made representations to the Philippines to tow away the ship as soon as possible. The Philippines promised China that it would tow away this ship, but it has not done so. The Philippines has failed in its promise and even engaged in construction.”

Basilio’s officials were not reported in the memorandum to have denied the Chinese officials’ claims of a promise. Neither did Basilio inform del Rosario whether Chinese officials claims of a Philippine promise were true or not. There wasn’t even that lie liars often use: “I am not aware of…”

A direct and simple response to the Chinese demands would have been, “The Philippines did not make such a promise.” By our DFA officials’ silence they were confirming that there was such a promise.

BRP Benguet

That there was such a promise is bolstered by the fact that the Philippines had another of its vessels, the BRP Benguet, grounded simultaneously with the Sierra Madre in another disputed reef around 560 kilometers to the northeast of Scarborough Shoal, for the same purpose as staking our claim in a disputed area. After the Chinese demanded for the two ships to be towed away, the Benguet was removed, shortly before the official visit of Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji to Manila.

However, the Sierra Madre wasn’t towed away, and from a spic and span vessel, it has deteriorated into an ugly ghost-like ship that looks like it could be swept away by a super typhoon. The Chinese had warned the Philippines that it could send supplies to the vessel and rotate the Marines stationed there, but it could not bring in materials to maintain it because of China’s fears that it would be maintained as a permanent outpost. The Philippine line had been that the ship had accidentally run aground. It was only in del Rosario’s 2014 memorandum to Aquino that it was declared a permanent outpost to mark our sovereignty.

The Philippine thinking — which I think is silly — is that since the BRP Sierra Madre was still officially part of the country’s Navy fleet, an attack on it by the Chinese that would remove it from the shoal would fall under the US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty’s provision that it will defend the Philippines if there is an armed attack on the country’s “armed forces, public vessels or aircraft in the Pacific.”

The president who authorized the grounding of both ships in the disputed areas was Joseph Estrada. A 2022 book by Gregory Poling, one of the US’ foremost China-bashing analysts, especially with regard to the South China Sea issue, narrates:

“In 1999, the RP Sierra Madre approached Second Thomas Shoal, about 20 miles from Mischief Reef. The captain steered through the only passable channel into the lagoon, turned around, and intentionally grounded his ship on the reef.

“The Philippines had its ninth, and most precarious, outpost in the Spratlys. The Sierra Madre’s grounding raised tensions with Beijing, which was irate. When the Chinese government demanded that the ship be removed, President Estrada, feigning ignorance, promised to tow the vessel away as soon as it could be safely floated off the reef.”

Why?

Why is it important to determine whether the Philippines did or did not promise to leave Ayungin?

First, it should serve to enlighten us as to why the Chinese water-cannoned the vessel they thought was bringing construction materials to the Sierra Madre. If the country did commit to towing away the vessel, then repairing it to prevent it from sinking meant the opposite of what we promised to do. That fact should sober us up: from China’s viewpoint, it is not bullying us but responding to our failure after 26 years to fulfill a promise.

Second, verbal agreements are crucial tools in diplomacy in order to ensure that an agreement isn’t leaked prematurely to the public, and if it is, it can be denied by one party. More importantly, by being kept secret, negotiating governments are freer to agree to pacts that could trigger outrage among a public largely uninformed of the issues involved.

The classic case for this was US President John F. Kennedy’s commitment to the USSR to remove its missiles in Turkey in order to end the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. This promise was delivered only verbally to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev by his brother Robert through the Russian ambassador in Washington. Kennedy would not have reached an agreement with the USSR — and most probably a nuclear war would have broken out — if the public had been told of such an agreement.

Rumors

While there were rumors of such a pact — which explains Kennedy’s “miracle” of ending the crisis and staving off nuclear war with the USSR — US officials denied it. It was confirmed only 25 years later in 1987 when transcripts of Kennedy’s taped discussions with his top advisers to arrive at that decision were declassified.

If Estrada’s promise in 1999 to remove the two LSTs in Ayungin and Scarborough had been made public, he certainly would have been ousted earlier than in 2001. That Estrada committed to China to withdraw the two LSTs was actually common knowledge in diplomatic circles. Now that our officials are denying that such a commitment was made, we no longer have in our diplomatic toolbox the useful tool of verbal agreements.

The NSC’s Melaya and his ilk, especially that ignoramus Coast Guard officer Jay Tarriela, have no business saying anything about another country, especially in a crisis situation, as this involves foreign affairs policy, which only the President is authorized to determine under our Constitution. They have in their power-tripping portrayed our country as one that doesn’t keep its word, or one where a succeeding president doesn’t recognize a commitment to another country a previous president made.

Haven’t they noticed in the South China Sea disputes that it has been only the spokesman of China’s foreign ministry and, in a few instances, the Chinese ambassador here who have commented on this foreign affairs matter? Has any officer of the People’s Liberation Army or Coast Guard ever spoken against the Philippines?


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This Post Has 8 Comments

  1. Dorina S. Rojas

    Just today Senators JV and Jinggoy announced that there was no such an agreement per former DFA Secretary Orly Mercado, and it was allegedly illogical that the former President would contradict his own actions. Commodore Tarriela also denied making statements and he was just updating the public on WPS events. Our foreign policy is a serious matter and should be handled only by high-level government officials like the President and the DFA Secretary who are authorized and can be held accountable for such statements.

    1. Like I said below, that’s easy for them to say now precisely because it’s a mere verbal statement back then, and they are simply repeating what they’ve been told. But the circumstantial evidence liie the DFA omissions and non-denials in written statements, plus common knowledge in diplomatic circles since then suggest otherwise. The Chinse can bolster their claim by directly naming the official who made this verbal promise. It was pretty well-known during Erap’s time that senior officials like department secretaries and those of similar rank took liberty with the scope of their authority since Erap had irregular office hours and was not sober enough before noon on most days. If it was not the DFA Secretary then, it could have been one of the Usecs or Asecs who were assigned to talk to the Chinese then. Or one of the blabbermouths in the DND, AFP, Navy or Coast Guard. After all, for them, it would just be payback for the Chinese lying about building just “fisherman’s shelters” on Mischief Reef during FVR’s time in the mid-90s.

  2. It is hilariously ironic that it’s during the terms of the pro-US Presidents we have had that we lost territories in that disputed area. First was Pugad Island during FM Sr.’s time (it’s the US that actually encouraged him to declare martial law, only to use that very issue to bring him down later on when he wasn’t as useful to the Americans anymore), the 2nd was Mischief Reef in 1995 during chief Lil’ Brown Amboy FVR’s time (when he stepped down as Pres. he was immediately given the golden parachute by the US military-industrial company The Carlyle Group as a so-called “consultant”), and the 3rd was of course Scarborough Shoal during PNoy & Amboy del Rosario’s time. It was only during GMA & Duterte’s time that we managed to preserve the status quo, a testament to the delicate balancing act that both had to do despite the criticism from the usual colonial-minded little brown Amboys who have vested interests in continuing to act as doormats to the Americans.

    Now I just heard in the lamestream news the loud denials of Erap’s illegitimate son JV that his Dad verbally promised to tow away our ship in Ayungin, which is easy for him to say now since there are no records of this verbal promise except for these DFA documents and common knowledge in diplomatic circles. The lamestream media of course just credulously parroted this denial without challenge and without interviewing Amb. Tiglao to get the other side of the issue, which is very stupid and just goes to show how the lamestream media act more like agenda pushers and narrative controllers rather than unbiased, objective reporters. As expected, our Coast Guard talking heads, like their counterparts in the AFP, are just acting more like spokespersons for the Pentagon and State Dept. than for the PH’s national interests. It’s really pathetic how ignorant and reactionary most people are about this issue due to the biased propaganda being regurgigated in the media.

  3. RG

    Same applies to the inflammatory statements by some senators (Tulfo, Zubiri, Hontiveros) calling for the public to boycott Chinese products and Zubiri harassing the Filipino-Chinese community, demanding that they denounce the Chinese Coast Guard’s actions, as if these Filipino citizens were not assured the same constitutional rights and freedoms as he is. Stop grandstanding in aid of reelection, and leave foreign policy to the President.

    1. After his recent visit to Washington, Zubiri has found out how enormously advantageous to his family’s wealth and influence it is to become a loud advocate for US interests here in PH. Tulfo, Tolentino and Hontiveros are just typical trapos latching on to the side of this issue that they think can get them more votes in the next election. If the Americans become as generous to them for being lil brown Amboys and girl, then that’s just a welcome bonus.

    2. My reply got truncated. Here’s the missing part:

      If BBM is not careful, he’d be the 4th pro-US President to lose territory in that disputed area. Quite ironic that the 2 Presidents who were more neutral and circumspect and branded as “pro-China” by the usual lil brown Amboys are the only ones who managed not to lose territory in that area during their terms. Unfortunately, the US easily found the leverage (the remaining hidden wealth and court cases the Marcos family still have in the US & Europe) to influence BBM in this issue. He really couldn’t do anything independently, to the point that it’s the US that had announced the 4 new EDCA sites even before the DND & DFA did, and without even giving the local officials in those places the courtesy of asking for their permission first! So tragic.

  4. JDB

    Bakit from ERAP you jumped to PNOY? What about during your time? Tuta kayo ng Tsina diba, bakit hindi kayo nag-pro active na alisin ang BRP Sierra Madre? Aware ka kamo na merong pangako si ERAP.

    1. Here’s the typical socmed level of reaction complete with ad hominem and non-sequiturs. Eh kung inalis yun during GMA’s time edi lalo kayong nagalit hindi ba. Engot. We never lost territory during GMA’s time. Back to FB, Youtube and Reddit for your lil brown Amboy a$$. Next time, don’t butt in when the adults are talking. This is way beyond your level of comprehension.

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