PRESIDENT Ferdinand Marcos Jr. two days ago declared with much bombast, “While we are not looking for a fight, we will defend our territory.” He’s certainly got his work cut out for him. Or, his Foreign Affairs secretary isn’t briefing him properly, or he isn’t listening. (Such an irony of history: the sons of two arch-enemies said exactly the same thing, separated by 11 years.)
Marcos was referring to Scarborough Shoal, Bajo de Masinloc to us, which the Chinese last week encircled with a floating barrier in order, it said, to block the entry of Philippine government vessels into its lagoon without risking a collision of its ships if its coast guard attempts to block them.
When the Philippine ships seemed no longer attempting to enter the area, the Chinese removed the barriers; the Philippine Coast Guard boasted that it had dismantled the barrier by having a single diver cut the ropes that anchored the barrier. Hilarious really.
Marcos seemed not to know the fact that we lost Scarborough Shoal 11 years ago, sufficient time, the Chinese probably could argue, to claim sovereignty by sheer unchallenged occupation for more than a decade. We lost Bajo de Masinloc because of the colossal bungling of President Benigno Aquino 3rd and his foreign secretary — Albert del Rosario — after Sabah, the only territory the Philippines as a nation ever lost.
A related narrative — which I subscribe to, and I can support this with facts — is that the US deliberately got us to lose Scarborough Shoal to the Chinese as it would be — as it indeed became — the biggest reason for the Philippines to be belligerent with China and to hope that the US would one day recover it for us.
Observers of the South China Sea (SCS) would know what the Asian Maritime Transparency Institute (AMTI), headquartered in Washington, D.C., is. While innocently named as such, it is the US’ most professionally run think tank and propaganda venue for SCS issues.
It was set up by one of the US’ most influential think tanks, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, right after the Philippines’ filed its arbitration case in December 2013 to provide information and open-source intelligence data to writers and analysts of the South China Sea disputes. It is the prime distributor of satellite images, obviously taken by the CIA, to media all over the globe.
I describe in detail what AMTI is so there can be no doubt at all that its account of how we lost Scarborough Shoal isn’t biased for China, as many of my detractors claim that my over two dozen columns (as well as book) on the episode are. However, on the contrary, in a few of its statements, it does reveal its American bias.
In the first place, AMTI lists on its website the Spratly Island features according to the country which occupies it and chronologically to the date it was occupied. Scarborough Shoal is listed as the 28th and last to be occupied by China.
It then describes how it fell into Chinese hands, its narrative actually a summary from a longer piece that is a chapter in the book “Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia: The Theory and Practice of Gray Zone Deterrence,” published by AMTI’s mother institution, the CSIS. The account is as follows:
“On April 8, 2012, a Philippine aircraft sighted a group of Chinese fishermen anchored in Scarborough Shoal. Manila, Beijing and Taipei all lay claim to this coral atoll, but at the time Manila exercised de facto control. Indeed, the Philippine Navy had often detained or expelled Chinese fishermen in the area. So on April 8, Manila dispatched its largest naval frigate (recently acquired from Washington) to disrupt what it viewed as illegal fishing.
The Philippines’ BRP Gregorio del Pilar reached the shoal early on April 10. Armed sailors boarded and inspected the Chinese ships, but when the Filipinos disembarked to prepare to make arrests, the trawlers sent out a distress call to authorities in China’s Hainan province. Two unarmed China Marine Surveillance vessels happened to be on a routine patrol nearby. They quickly arrived and took position just outside the narrow mouth of Scarborough Shoal’s lagoon. As night fell, the two sides settled into an uneasy standoff.
Philippine leaders initially sought a ‘diplomatic solution’ and indicated they would not involve the United States in the dispute, for the time being. On April 12, Manila demilitarized its presence by replacing the navy frigate with a coast guard ship. Beijing did not immediately reciprocate; in fact, a third Chinese vessel turned up the same day.
The morning of April 13, however, promising initial talks occurred between Philippine foreign secretary, Albert del Rosario and China’s ambassador in Manila. Soon after, two Chinese cutters shepherded the Chinese fishing boats out of the shoal, leaving Manila and Beijing one ship apiece. Unfortunately, negotiations broke down the same evening. Manila had opposed letting the fishermen leave with their haul intact. The Chinese ambassador also insisted that the Philippines withdraw its last vessel first, but Manila refused. When del Rosario publicly declared a ‘stalemate’ the next morning, a second Chinese vessel returned to the shoal.
On April 17, the Philippines shifted strategy and broadcast that it would unilaterally pursue international or third-party arbitration of the dispute. Manila also appealed directly to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to ‘take a stand.’ Beijing rejected these attempts to ‘internationalize’ the crisis and accused Manila of breaking ‘the consensus reached’ to resolve it bilaterally.
Nevertheless, China made another attempt at conciliation. On April 23, Chinese state media trumpeted that Beijing had withdrawn two vessels to ‘prove’ its readiness to settle the matter through dialogue. Even Philippine reports suggest that, at certain points, all of China’s cutters were probably pulled over the horizon. Still, the Philippines dismissed this overture, perhaps due to confusion, and instead deployed a second fisheries vessel into the lagoon.
Manila then stated on April 26 that it would seek to ‘maximize’ US involvement. Switching gears, the Chinese military warned it could ‘make joint efforts’ with civilian agencies at Scarborough if necessary. On April 28, a Chinese cutter harassed the Philippine ships at the shoal. Four Chinese government ships were back in the standoff two days later.
US and Philippine officials met in Washington on April 30. The United States reaffirmed its alliance obligations and pledged to help build its ally’s maritime capacity. (Aquino, del Rosario, and the defense secretary actually went to Washington to beg Obama for US help, which was denied. –RDT) Critically, it did not clarify whether the US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty covered the South China Sea or promised to intervene directly. Leaders in the Philippines clearly expected more, but US policymakers were frustrated with Manila’s management of the crisis.
Tensions entered the economic arena on May 3 when it was reported that shipments of Philippine fruits were rejected at Chinese ports. Chinese customs authorities claimed they had failed quality control tests, but many suspected Beijing was using the restrictions as a tool in the dispute. On the other hand, Manila never officially accused Beijing of economic coercion. China began taking steps toward this quarantine in March and had imposed similar bans over legitimate health concerns as recently as 2011.
Meanwhile, China continued to escalate at sea. By May 21, five cutters and over a dozen fishing trawlers faced off against the Philippines’ two vessels. With the situation worsening, Philippine President Benigno Aquino 3rd decided to empower a back-channel negotiator, Sen. Antonio Trillanes 4th. Between May and July, Trillanes met with Chinese vice foreign minister Fu Ying and another official some 16 times.
After more than two months, the Philippines pulled its two vessels out of Scarborough Shoal on June 15. Manila initially maintained they were evading a typhoon, but only days later, it indignantly protested that Beijing was also expected to leave as part of a mutual ‘agreement.’ There are two sharply contrasting accounts of these climatic events.
The conventional wisdom (read: US propaganda – RDT) is that US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell negotiated an immediate, mutual withdrawal with Fu Ying sometime in early June. China reportedly made ‘commitments to ‘de-escalate’ over Scarborough,’ and the United States ‘put a lot of pressure on the [Philippines] to step back.’ Manila followed through, but according to this view, Beijing reneged and kept its ships at the shoal.
A second narrative holds that Fu only committed to relaying the ‘suggestion’ to her superiors. To some of those present, it was not obvious whether the two sides reached a deal, nor what its terms were. Communication errors multiplied because Manila was told that Beijing had conclusively agreed.
Per Trillanes, ‘there was never a commitment for a total pullout.’* He had instead been negotiating a sequential withdrawal in which China would have quietly pulled out two ships per day. Some sources suggest that the Philippines’ public outing of the cobbled-together arrangement was a deal breaker that forced Chinese officials to call it off rather than be seen as weak domestically.
Whatever the specific details of these talks, nothing succeeded in restoring Philippine administration of the shoal. Manila chose not to revive the standoff once it became clear that Chinese ships were not leaving (or, perhaps, had come back).
This amounted to a de facto transfer of control to Beijing. By July, there were reports of China turning the tables and chasing Filipino fishermen away from Scarborough.
Before the Asean Foreign Ministers’ Meeting later that month, Trillanes’ backchannel again offered to remove China’s remaining three vessels if Manila downplayed the dispute. Yet, most of the Philippine cabinet favored pushing forcefully for regional support. Heated discord at the Asean summit, however, prevented Asean from issuing a joint communiqué for the first time in its history. This final failure led Manila to settle on pursuing international arbitration.”
*A third narrative I have written extensively in my column and in my book “Debacle” was that the Obama administration through one of its top diplomats, Campbell, deliberately tricked Aquino and Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario into ordering the Philippine vessels out of the lagoon falsely thinking that there was an agreement with the Chinese. This account is partly based on the report of Trillanes, an eyewitness and participant in the events as Aquino’s special envoy.
This was because Obama’s officials were worried that Aquino’s military would deliberately or accidentally provoke an armed conflict with the Chinese. In such an eventuality, the US would either have to militarily assist the Philippine vessels, under their Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT), which could lead to an unacceptable war with China. The other scenario would be for the US to claim the incident did not fall under the MDT since the incident occurred in a disputed area. In this case though, the US would lose its credibility as the force to deter Chinese expansionism.
The most important consideration for the Americans, of course, was that Obama was running for re-election at that time in a tight race, scheduled just four months away, on Nov. 14, 2012. A war or even just the threat of war with China during the election campaign would have undoubtedly doomed his candidacy.
A very strong indication that Campbell indeed fooled Aquino and del Rosario was that in his 2016 book, “The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia,” his only mention of that episode was a single sentence: “The Philippines’ 10-week standoff with China ultimately resulted in its loss of the Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by both countries.” He could have further demonized China — the sole target of Obama’s “pivot to Asia” program he was the main implementor of by claiming that the Chinese fooled the Philippines into abandoning Scarborough. But he didn’t. Of course, he couldn’t.
So how could Marcos bluster that he wouldn’t lose an inch of territory when the Philippines already lost Scarborough Shoal, and he should first recover it? And how in the world would he do it without a fight?
Through a case in an international court? But we’ve already done that, in the arbitration suit Aquino filed a few months after losing the territory in the stupid belief that it would recover Scarborough Shoal. It didn’t, which I will report in detail on Wednesday.
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