WHILE the Philippine government’s alleged promise to tow away the BRP Sierra Madre from Ayungin Shoal has become a hot topic only in the past few days, the claim had already been exposed and became controversial way back in 2014.
Indeed so much so that the DFA issued a statement on it, which I quote verbatim from the Official Gazette’s website:
“The Department of Foreign Affairs’ statement on China’s allegation that the Philippines agreed to pull out of the Ayungin Shoal
(Released on March 14, 2014)
The BRP Sierra Madre, a commissioned Philippine Naval Vessel, was placed in Ayungin Shoal in 1999 to serve as a permanent Philippine government installation in response to China’s illegal occupation of Mischief Reef in 1995. This was prior to the signing of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea in 2002.
The Philippines reiterates that Ayungin Shoal is part of its continental shelf over which the Philippines has sovereign rights and jurisdiction.
This entry was posted under Briefing Room, Department of Foreign Affairs.”
(A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson reacted three days later to the DFA statement claiming that Manila had made an “unequivocal commitment to China on many occasions that it would tow away the ship ‘grounded’ on [Second Thomas] due to ‘malfunction.’ The spokesman said the “sitting Philippine government was not the one of 15 years ago,” but demanded that “as a country the Philippines should honor its commitment” or else risk losing its “credibility.”)
The above quote is the entirety of the DFA’s two-paragraph statement. The DFA did not deny that there was such a deal. It only reiterated the Philippine claim that the shoal is part of its continental shelf.
With his alleged, but well-known limited mental capacity, I would understand Sen. Jinggoy Estrada’s difficulty in understanding the nuances of that DFA statement. I’ll try my best though to explain why it was written in such a terse manner.
If there was no such promise, the DFA would have said so outright. It couldn’t deny that there was a promise that could have been made by President Joseph Estrada, who determines foreign policy, when he met with Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji in Manila in November 1999. This was a few months after the BRP Sierra Madre was deliberately grounded in Ayungin. Shoal.
Why? DFA officials may have also been worried that Zhu’s staff — as aides normally do — may have taken notes of the meeting where Estrada gave the promise, and may have even recorded their conversation. It certainly would be a slap on the government’s face if the Chinese were to publicly release such notes and tapes, revealing that Estrada made the promise.
Who in the DFA would dare ask Estrada if he promised or not? Of course, normally it would be his foreign secretary, Domingo Siazon, who would have done so. But Siazon was rumored to have convinced Estrada to just promise the Chinese that the grounded ship would be removed as soon as the navy could do so. Indeed, there was a second vessel, the BRP Benguet, that was grounded at another disputed area, in Scarborough Shoal. It was removed after the Chinese protested, and a month before Zhu’s visit to Manila.
Why would Siazon be so concerned about China’s protestations over the two vessels grounded at Ayungin and Scarborough Shoal?
The book “Rock Solid” by Marites Vitug who praised to high heavens the arbitration suit against China and its alleged heroic architects (then-Foreign Affairs secretary Albert del Rosario and retired Justice Antonio Carpio), quoted Estrada’s defense secretary (and now fellow Manila Times columnist) Orly Mercado: “Mercado recalled that Siazon’s dream of replacing Secretary-General Kofi Annan at the UN may have been a factor in his taking such a position.
“‘This was known in the Cabinet as some of his colleagues gently ribbed him about it,’ Mercado mused, and Siazon may not have wanted to displease China whose support he may have needed in his potential UN bid.”
The DFA could not confirm such a promise though as this would mean that the Philippines has given up its claims on Ayungin Shoal as being within its exclusive economic zone and recognizing China’s claim that it is within its sovereign territory, which they call the Nansha Islands, their name for our Kalayaan Island Group.
In international law lingo, the Philippines would be put on estoppel, that we can no longer protest China’s claims, as the promise meant recognizing China’s sovereignty over Ayungin.
A commitment to remove the Sierra Madre is not as unpatriotic as his son the jingoist Sen. Jinggoy Estrada thinks, something which he says his father cannot possibly do.
With that promise, China left the BRP Sierra Madre alone, allowing us to at least have that “marker” of our sovereignty there for 22 years now. We didn’t have such a presence in Scarborough Shoal as the BRP Benguet had been removed, making it easier for China to take it over during the stand-off there in 2012.
The real story behind the Ayungin Shoal tensions — and the heightening of Chinese harassment of our vessels in Ayungin Shoal (international name: Second Thomas Shoal) — is that it is one of the many adverse consequences of Aquino 3rd’s filing of the suit against China over our EEZ claims in the Spratlys.
The Chinese started harassing Philippine resupplying missions to the BRP Sierra Madre, and invoking Estrada’s promise that it would be towed away, only after Aquino’s government first informed China on January 2013 that it would be filing the suit on the basis of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos). Then in in January 2014 (after the arbitral panel was formed) China offered the Philippines that it would cease harassing BRP Sierra Madre and withdraw from Scarborough Shoal if the Aquino government stopped its plan to file the arbitration suit, the deadline for such process was March 30, 2014 on which Aquino’s American lawyers must have filed the formal complaint, called the “Memorial.”
A 2017 book “Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia” published by the US think tank Center for Strategic and International Relations reported in its “Case Study No. Six: Second Thomas Shoal Incident”:
“Tensions over Second Thomas Shoal steadily rose once again in early 2014 over the submission deadline for a written plea in the Philippines’ arbitration case in March. In January, Manila reportedly received a Chinese offer for an agreement to de-escalate the South China Sea dispute ‘through a lawmaker who acted as a backdoor negotiator’.” It is unknown whether this was the senator, Antonio Trillanes 4th, who was President Aquino’s personal back channel to Beijing during earlier negotiations over Scarborough Shoal.
The bargain China allegedly offered was substantial. In return for the Philippines not submitting its memorial to a specially constituted arbitral tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration, Beijing pledged to withdraw its coast guard from Scarborough Shoal as long as Manila guaranteed the disengagement would be mutual. In effect, China would forfeit the control it had gained over the shoal in the 2012 standoff — which had been the arbitration case’s raison d’être in the first place, or at least the straw that broke the camel’s back. Beijing also held out other “incentives,” including investment in the Philippines.
The Philippine Cabinet was divided when President Aquino informed them about the proposed deal during a full meeting of the Cabinet in late January. Secretary del Rosario stood firmly against it. The president’s office was initially undecided, but the foreign secretary’s objections eventually won out.
Officials remarked that the Scarborough Shoal issue “did not start” with the 2012 standoff, which was “just a manifestation of an earlier problem.” There were also concerns about the credibility of such an offer coming through a backdoor negotiator. As Manila debated the deal in mid-February, Chinese government ships reestablished a continuous presence at Second Thomas Shoal.
Philippine officials never spoke on the record about the alleged deal or Manila’s ultimate decision. Some lawmakers had expressed interest, and neither was President Aquino totally against considering the bargain.
Nevertheless, on February 25, Philippine spokesmen announced that Manila had decided to proceed with its memorial. Local media published stories about the rejected deal the very next day.
Asked about the story, a Chinese embassy spokesman said he had “no information to offer,” and Philippine officials likewise declined to comment. On February 28, Secretary del Rosario then definitively affirmed that Manila was working with “full resolve” to submit its written pleading before the end of March. The same day, Manila asked the tribunal to amend its Statement of Claim to include the status of Second Thomas Shoal, which the court granted.” (End of quotes from the book, “Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia.”)
While the arbitration award did rule that the Second Thomas Shoal was within the Philippines EEZ, it was silent on China’s claim that it is part of its territory it calls the Nansha archipelago. Bad news for the Philippines is that the award said that Chinese actions to block supply vessels from reaching BRP Sierra Madre Philippine, were “quintessentially military in nature” over which the arbitration panel had no authority to rule on.
Thus China has continued its harassment of our supply vessels to BRP Sierra Madre with the US merely watching such actions as the Philippines cannot invoke its Mutual Defense Treaty, since it calls for American military aid only in the case of an “armed attack” on our vessels. The use of water cannons and a Chinese ship’s blocking a Filipino vessel are not categorized as an “armed attack”, the sole term used in the MDT to trigger American military aid.
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