THERE is another, perhaps more compelling evidence — among the many I’ve presented in the past three columns — that the Joseph Estrada administration promised the Chinese that it would pull out what its Navy had deliberately grounded on Ayungin Shoal which served as its claim of sovereign rights in that disputed area.
He actually ordered the removal of a second grounded vessel at a more strategic disputed site, Scarborough Shoal.
Estrada when he assumed power in June 1998, was compelled to demonstrate his nationalist credentials, having made nationalism one of his advocacies, and especially since nationalist organizations (read: communist fronts) backed his run for the country’s highest post. He declared in late 1998: “If the Chinese are building structures, then we may as well put up our own structures.”
However, after he made the order, he was told by his officials that the Philippines doesn’t have the kind of money to build structures in the Kalayaan Island Group, which would cost billions of dollars. His Navy’s top brass proposed what they thought was a clever solution: deliberately grounding World War 2-vintage landing ship tanks (LST) in the shallow disputed shoals since these, as then Navy head Ferdinand Golez said, “would hit rock bottom, and never sink.”
The Navy ran aground two “sister” LSTs — built in the same shipyard in the US in 1944 — in two disputed areas. The BRP (Barko ng Republika ng Pilipinas) Sierra Madre was deliberately grounded in Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas) and the BRP Benguet near Scarborough Shoal in May 1999.
Gregory Poling, who directs the US-funded Southeast Asia Program and Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, wrote in his 2023 book “On Dangerous Ground”: ” 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. But it was an act. The whole idea had come from senior leadership, particularly Philippine Navy chief Eduardo Santos.”
While Estrada did not remove the BRP Sierra Madre, he ordered the BRP Benguet, which was grounded in Scarborough Shoal, to be immediately towed away. Poling wrote: “Within a month, the government back-pedaled, and the navy was ordered to remove the ship. They hired a Malaysian tugboat to pull it off the reef and let rumors spread that the BRP Benguet had accidentally run aground after colliding with some Chinese fishing boats.”
An earlier book, a 2017 scholarly but pro-US anthology “Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia,” in its section titled “Case 6: Second Thomas Shoal Incident” had the same narrative:
“On May 9, 1999, the BRP Sierra Madre was deliberately grounded on the northwest rim of Second Thomas Shoal. A second Philippine tank landing ship, the BRP Benguet was simultaneously run aground 350 nautical miles to the northeast on Scarborough Shoal, another disputed reef. Chinese officials have repeatedly claimed Manila argued at the time that its vessels were grounded due to malfunction.
“According to this narrative, Beijing demanded the Philippines immediately tow them away. Manila complied by removing the Benguet from Scarborough Shoal, yet the Sierra Madre remained grounded on Second Thomas.”
It is not known though why Estrada removed the BRP Benguet from Scarborough Shoal and did not do so in the case of the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal. Scarborough (Bajo de Masinloc) is nearer to us and over which we have a stronger claim of sovereignty. We claim Scarborough as our territory, while, at least according to the defense secretary and the armed forces brass, Ayungin Shoal is “ours” because it is within our exclusive economic zone.
Did Estrada calculate that removing the BRP Benguet would appease the Chinese enough that he could drag his feet in removing the BRP Sierra Madre, which would have made him vulnerable to the opposition’s claim then that he buckled down to Chinese pressure? Did he plan to do so but had been later distracted by other problems such as his all-out war against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and, especially in the succeeding year, the all-out campaign of the opposition to topple him?
Marites Vitug’s 2018 book “Rock Solid” was most likely commissioned by either then Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario or China basher former justice Antonio Carpio, as it is an unabashed paean to the two as “heroes” who were the architects of the Philippines’ arbitration suit against China. Indeed, Vitug was given unprecedented access to confidential documents and to all officials who had some knowledge of our dispute with China in the South China Sea.
Why would she lie in her account and say that Estrada did withdraw the BRP Benguet from Scarborough Shoal:
“The final ‘occupation’ (by the Philippines of South China Sea features) would take place in 1999, during the term of President Joseph Estrada. This was his little-known legacy, eclipsed by an abbreviated term punctuated by corruption scandals…
It was the Navy chief, Flag Officer in Command (FOIC) Eduardo Santos, who suggested to use some of the World War 2-era LSTs to stake the Philippine claim and establish its presence. How? ‘We run them aground and leave them in the islands. These are part of our assets, listed in the registry of our active vessels. They belong to the Philippine government’s armaments.’
This meant that these ships, no matter their age, represented the Philippines wherever they were. Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado found the idea innovative… He raised a concern about how the ships were to be maintained should the operations be successful, and left that to the generals to ponder.
Ferdinand Golez was then a Navy intelligence officer who, together with Navy operations, planned the details of running a ship aground in Scarborough. The mission was not an easy one, and one of the sources of danger would be the weather.
Unlike the Ayungin mission, the Scarborough plan was met with disapproval from a Cabinet member. Golez joined Mercado and Fernandez in a security cluster meeting, which included Foreign Affairs Secretary Domingo Siazon and witnessed the discussion. Siazon objected to the plan because Premier Zhu Rongji was scheduled to visit Manila at the time. The foreign secretary argued that the Chinese premier might consider the Scarborough act hostile and drop his visit. Mercado remained gung-ho and pushed for it. ‘Orly was adamant. He said our message to the Chinese was to convey Philippine sovereignty,’ Golez recalled.
Mercado prevailed and the Navy pushed through. A plane guided the ship to where it was grounded. As soon as the Benguet docked, China was calling top Philippine officials in the foreign affairs department and the armed forces. Chinese fishing boats close to Scarborough saw the Benguet run aground and the information was swiftly relayed to Chinese authorities.
Soon after, in less than a month, Golez was instructed to have the ship pulled out. ‘We took a helicopter from Zambales and landed on BRP Benguet to check if it would be dangerous to leave. One engine had conked out. So we hired a Malaysian civilian tugboat to tow it.’
The ship was rehabilitated and has since embarked on two voyages to East Timor and continues to serve the Navy. In November 1999, Premier Zhu Rongji made an official visit to Manila. He addressed an informal meeting of Asean heads of state and their dialogue partners — China, Japan and Korea. These events show that major decisions such as establishing a Philippine presence in contested islands could not be sustained by the advocacy of one member of the Cabinet.
Thus, while Estrada took one step forward with Ayungin, he also took one step back in the case of Scarborough. Siazon, Estrada’s foreign secretary, led the opposition to running the ship aground in Scarborough. 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.”
Unfortunately, Siazon, one of our most respected foreign secretaries, died in 2016, so we cannot get his side of Mercado’s claims. I do hope his colleagues, who are still alive, will defend him.
While logic would inarguably conclude that Estrada made the same promise to the Chinese to remove both LSTs and did so in the case of BRP Benguet, Vitug in her book did not mention such a promise. Why?
The book was obviously vetted by Carpio and probably even the government’s US lawyers in the arbitration suit. They would have easily seen that the mention of such a promise would weaken and even torpedo the suit’s claim that Chinese vessels were illegally harassing the Philippine resupply missions to the BRP Sierra Madre in order to force it to leave Ayungin Shoal, and so they ordered the book’s author to strike out any reference to Estrada’s promise.
We cannot have history faked, and those presenting authentic history branded, as that jingoistic Sen. Jinggoy Estrada did, as “traitors.” As a Canadian historian pointed out, “We can learn from history, but we can also deceive ourselves when we selectively take evidence from the past to justify what we have already made up our minds to do.”
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