Second of 2 parts
While Aquino 3rd quickly recognized his blunder and ordered his warship out, smaller government and private vessels from both countries swarmed the area. Each side refused to leave the area as this would mean giving up their claims of sovereignty. This standoff lasted for 10 weeks, which risked an armed conflict between vessels from each, which could have dragged China and US into war.
The Aquino 3rd government in the last week of June withdrew its vessels, in effect abandoning Scarborough, with China since then tightening its hold over the shoal that it is listed now, even by a US think-tanks on the South China Sea disputes as among the features there that the Chinese control.
The recent events involving China installing a floating barrier in part of the shoal, purportedly to stop our coast guard ships from entering the area, and with the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) allegedly removing it successfully reflects both nations’ insistence on their sovereignty claims on the shoal.
Why and how China tightened on the shoal is described in the book “Seeing the World” by Fu Ying, one of China’s top diplomats who oversaw her country’s management of the crisis. The first part of this account was reproduced in my column last Wednesday. Following is the concluding part, with several sentences deleted, however, for brevity.
Fu Ying’s account
“In Beijing, we were very concerned about the situation [when the stand-off emerged]. We were worried that should our fishermen be harassed again, confrontations may break out, putting the fishermen’s safety at risk.
To prevent such a grim prospect, the Chinese side urged through diplomatic channels that the Philippines withdraw its armed ships out of the lagoon, but these requests were ignored. The Philippine DFA also refused any request for dialogue from the Chinese embassy in Manila, a practice rarely seen in peace time.
This difficult situation continued for over two weeks, and by the end of May, China decided to send its own smaller law enforcement patrol boats into the lagoon, and reinforce the guarding ships outside the lagoon. The smaller Chinese law enforcement boats helped calm down the situation in the lagoon by protecting the fishing boats against the armed Philippine Coast Guard ships.
So, why would the Philippine Navy blatantly provoke China at Huangyan Dao and take such extreme actions against the Chinese fishermen? And, why would it want to challenge China in such a way? This abnormal behavior was all but incomprehensible, yet one could not help but wonder, what kind of driving force was behind the Philippine behavior…
It was an ally of the US and had been a critical pillar for US military activities in Southeast Asia. Against the backdrop of the US ‘Pivot’ and ‘Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy,’ the growing American interest in the South China Sea had probably stimulated and encouraged the Philippines…
After the Huangyan Dao incident broke out, President Aquino 3rd, Foreign Minister del Rosario and others claimed on multiple occasions that according to the US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty, the US would help the Philippines when it was ‘threatened by external armed attack.’
Indeed, the US is obligated to provide support to its ally caught in confrontations, under the 1951 US-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty. … However, from the political point of view, the US, as a seasoned global power, would not allow itself to be dragged into conflicts that are not in its own interest.
The US was hence caught between conflicting considerations on the Huangyan Dao issue. On the one hand, the US was worried that too much support for the Philippines would inflame its reckless behavior. On the other, it was concerned that if the Philippines backed off completely under China’s pressure, America’s image and standing would be undermined, and China’s perceived increasing strength would be seen in the US as a weakening of its own.
The US, therefore, tried to maintain a delicate balance. It reaffirmed the effectiveness of the US-Philippine Mutual Defense Treaty on diplomatic occasions, and also strengthened diplomatic and military interactions with the Philippines. However, senior US officials also indicated that the US did not take any positions on issues of dispute, and had no intention of getting involved in the Scarborough Shoal issue.
On many occasions, I gave a detailed account of the whole story and clarified China’s positions, emphasizing that the greatest need was for the Philippines to withdraw its boats from the Huangyan Dao lagoon and allow the fishermen to operate in a peaceful environment.
From May 30 to June 2, I met with Assistant State Secretary Kurt Campbell. He was visibly upset and made a long statement, mainly on behalf of the Philippines, complaining about China’s hard-handedness. He was particularly angry about the Chinese fishermen blocking the entrance to the lagoon with ropes to prevent the Philippine boats from entering. He expressed concern about the possibility of conflicts and hoped to find a way to ease the standoff.
After hearing him out, I patiently asked him a question that had troubled me for quite a while: Why did the Philippines so boldly provoke China by harassing the fishermen in the first place? I asked Campbell: ‘What role did the US play in the Huangyan Dao incident?’ I also added, ‘Of course, if you are not in a position to answer, I absolutely understand. But if you are, please tell me the truth.’
Campbell and I go way back, and we both like to be straightforward, so I knew he would not feel offended by my bluntness. He responded in a similar manner, ‘I can tell you for sure that the US has no involvement whatsoever in the incident.’ His answer was very important, as we needed to know the American role when trying to accurately assess the incident.
Campbell and the other American officials who accompanied him listened carefully to my account of the chain of events and our analysis of the current situation. I stressed that the Philippines needed to withdraw its boats from the lagoon in order to prevent conflict and de-escalate the situation. I said, ‘Given that it was the Filipinos who violated the existing agreement and provoked China first, China cannot trust them anymore. We will continue to maintain the law enforcement guard over Huangyan Dao, and will by no means tolerate any kind of further provocation.’
Presented with hard evidence, Campbell admitted that it was the Philippines that had acted first. But he also urged China, as the bigger power, not to overreact. Campbell was very concerned about how to ease the situation as soon as possible, not least because on June 8, the Philippine President Benigno Aquino 3rd would be arriving in Washington D.C. [Itals mine – RDT]
The US obviously did not want his visit to be overshadowed by the standoff between the Philippines and China, so presumably would like to see the problem solved before then. Campbell agreed with me that the Philippine government boats should leave the lagoon, and hoped that China would do the same, which would be a reasonable way out. I said that I did not have the authorization to promise anything, but as the Chinese law enforcement boats went into the lagoon to protect the Chinese fishermen from the armed Philippine boats, if the Philippines did withdraw, I thought, there would be no need for the Chinese law enforcement boats to stay in the lagoon.
Campbell told me that the US was going to explicitly request the Philippines to ‘handle the issue with great caution,’ and expressed the hope that China would withdraw its law enforcement boats once the Philippine boats leave. Campbell and the Philippine Foreign Secretary del Rosario were good friends, and he managed to persuade del Rosario to quickly remove their boats from the lagoon.
While traveling to the airport to return to China on June 3, Campbell rang to inform me that the Philippine boats had already left the lagoon and he urged that the Chinese boats should do the same. On arriving back in Beijing, I learned that relevant departments in China had already started to assess the situation in the lagoon, and had confirmed that the armed Philippine boats had left. Instructions had therefore been sent for the Chinese law enforcement boats to start leaving the lagoon. In the Philippines, the DFA publicly confirmed that the government boats from both sides had withdrawn from the Huangyan Dao lagoon by June 5.
As the fishing season in the South China Sea came to an end, a fishing moratorium was imposed and the Chinese fishing boats also gradually left Huangyan Dao lagoon.
China’s policy of imposing fishing moratorium in the South China Sea started in 1999, as the fishing intensity in the South China Sea had exceeded the replenishing capacity of the resources, leading to a serious decline of fishery resources, including major commercial fish stocks. Starting from May 1 until August 16, the waters north of latitude 12 degrees north in the South China Sea [which included the waters around Scarborough shoal – RDT ] are closed to fishing. During the fishing moratorium, all fishing vessels are to remain in their ports. Following the standoff, China kept only one or two law enforcement ships in the waters around Huangyan Dao, and the situation finally calmed down.
At the height of the tensions caused by the Huangyan Dao standoff, trade and tourism between China and the Philippines were heavily affected. Fruit imported from the Philippines was slow to sell in the Chinese markets, and Chinese Customs stepped up quarantine requirements. Chinese tourists also started to cancel their travel reservations to the Philippines, resulting in travel agencies having to switch destinations for tourists.
On May 10, 2012, Aquino sent his friends Antonio F. Trillanes 4th and Li Yongnian (who is ethnic Chinese), as special envoys to visit China, in the hope of turning a page and putting bilateral relations back on track. This gave us an opportunity to present them with a comprehensive account of Huangyan Dao’s history as a part of China and our views on the dispute. I briefed the special envoys on the anger that the incident had aroused among the Chinese public and its impact on bilateral relations. Their visit eased to some extent the tensions between the two sides.
However, the Philippine government was not of one voice. The Philippine Foreign Secretary del Rosario soon started to ‘spin’ the story. He claimed that China had persuaded the US to put pressure on the Philippines to withdraw, and it had now occupied the Huangyan Dao. Clearly, del Rosario was trying to create controversy, and to challenge the right of the Chinese surveillance ships to remain in the area to ‘watch over Huangyan Dao.’ As we later discovered, he was already preparing to bring the matter to international arbitration.
Del Rosario’s key working assumption was that the Philippines had been in rightful possession of Huangyan Dao, which was now lost to China. In fact, the Philippines had started to fabricate new ‘evidence’ to support its sovereignty claims over Huangyan Dao. It claimed, ‘the Philippines has exercised both effective occupation and effective jurisdiction over’ Huangyan Dao ‘since its independence.’ In this context, the Chinese became more and more concerned that the Philippines might try to take Huangyan Dao through ‘actual control.’ China, therefore, is more determined to prevent further complication by strengthening its law enforcement guard in Huangyan Dao waters by the State Oceanic Administration.
The US believed del Rosario’s story and was sympathetic to the Philippines. Campbell once said to me, ‘You’ve successfully manipulated us.’ This misunderstanding was also reflected in the widely held belief in the US and the Philippines that China was the dishonest party that failed to meet its commitment of reciprocal withdrawal and had exploited the situation to occupy Huangyan Dao. This version of the Huangyan Dao incident is deliberate spin. However, it would be dangerous if the Philippines and US governments base their decisions on this disinformation and misperception.”
While Fu’s account of course could be biased since after all she is not just Chinese but a top diplomat of her country, her narrative has not been contested even by Campbell. Even 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’ ten-week standoff with China ultimately resulted in its loss of the Scarborough Shoal, which is claimed by both countries.”
Former senator Trillanes’ written aide memoire on the standoff basically agrees with Fu Ying’s account. Only del Rosario and our ambassador to the US at that time, Jose Cuisia, had claimed there was an agreement that China had reneged on, claiming “Duplicitous ang mga Intsik” — which adds to the demonization of China.
But to this day, the fiction that the Chinese violated an agreement for a simultaneous withdrawal is viewed as fact. Another proof of the power of America’s propaganda apparatus.
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