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Marcos distorts Ayungin pacts to accuse Duterte of betraying country

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IT is so despicable for the President of the Republic to distort and use an important issue that would have shed light on this government’s quarrel with China over a part of the Spratlys (Kalayaan Islands to us) to portray former president Rodrigo Duterte, whose political clout was crucial in getting him the presidency, as having betrayed his country to China.

I am referring to the controversy over the agreement between the Philippines and China made in 1999 over the handling of the removal of the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal. The landing ship was grounded there in May 1999 by the Philippine Navy, reportedly without President Estrada’s approval, on the justification that the ship stranded there as listed Philippine assets “represented the Philippines” over a disputed territory.

Official memos indicating there was an agreement.

That was, of course, a birdbrained idea, as any international law expert will tell you, with the status of shipwrecks not even mentioned in the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (Unclos). Even the US State Department doesn’t list Ayungin Shoal as having a Philippine outpost. The 2007 Nairobi International Convention on the Removal of Wrecks even requires owners of shipwrecks to remove them as soon as possible.

It was the brainchild of Defense Secretary Orlando Mercado and the Navy Flag Officer in Command Eduardo Santos, who took command courses at the US Naval War College. The BRP Sierra Madre was grounded at Ayungin and the BRP Benguet near Scarborough Shoal a month later, on the excuse that these accidentally ran aground, would serve to keep alive the Philippines’ claim over these areas.

The Chinese, of course, wouldn’t buy that and protested to Foreign Affairs Secretary Domingo Siazon, informing him that because of this “aggression,” the scheduled official visit in November of Chinese Premier Zhu Rongji would be canceled. Zhu’s official visit ā€” also to attend an informal meeting of officials from Asean countries, Japan, Korea and China ā€” was supposed to give a boost to Estrada’s prestige in the region. Estrada and Siazon had wanted to draw the Philippines closer to China, reversing President Fidel Ramos’ overly pro-American orientation.

Furious

Informed about Mercado and Santos’ deed, Estrada was furious and directly ordered Navy FOIC to immediately have the two vessels return to their bases. The BRP Benguet immediately sailed back to its base. The BRP Sierra Madre wouldn’t budge, as it was grounded too deep on the shallow coral-filled bottom of Ayungin Shoal. The Chinese said it would send a People’s Liberation Army Navy vessel to pull out the BRP Sierra Madre and tow it to wherever the Philippines wanted. That would have been embarrassing for the Philippines, which instead promised to tow away the vessel as soon it had enough resources to do so.

(From top) BRP Sierra Madre in 2000, a year after it was grounded in 2014, and in 2024. Naval Museum, Manila Times, AFP Photos

The Estrada government’s agreement with the Chinese was for the Navy not to send repair and construction materials to the wreck to assuage Chinese worries that the Philippine government planned to use the vessel as a platform for constructing an outpost there in the same manner that the Chinese had built a small facility on stilts in Mischief Reef four years ago. Estrada, however, convinced the Chinese to allow a squad of armed marines to be stationed in the marooned ship, to be rotated and provided the necessities of survival. This was intended to defend the vessel from being dismantled by scavengers.

There were three other administrations ā€” that of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Benigno Aquino 3rd and Duterte ā€” after Estrada’s. Only if Duterte, who became president 17 years later, had been able to time travel backward and disguise himself as Estrada could he have been involved in the agreement with China made in 1999, which President Marcos the other day blamed on Duterte. The agreement with China was honored by all presidents after Estrada, even if only by looking away.

President Marcos, with his national security adviser Eduardo AƱo and his defense secretary Gilberto Teodoro, has been in deep denial that there was an agreement. Either there’s something wrong with their heads, or they are following a US playbook to keep the tensions between the Philippines and China to continue and in the headlines of local and global media.

Proofs

There are three sets of proofs that incontrovertibly prove that there was such an agreement between China and the Philippines over the handling of the BRP Sierra Madre for its eventual removal. One would have to be extremely stupid or exceedingly untruthful to deny this evidence.

First, photographs of the BRP Sierra Madre at different times 25 years after it was grounded confirm there was such an agreement, which was complied with by both parties until Marcos became president. When it was grounded in May 1999, it was a “well-kept handsome ship, looking spiffy and shiny. From the high angle where the pictures were taken, the helipad was so enormous that it made the chopper look like a firefly,” a book commissioned by Albert del Rosario as an anti-China propaganda operation pointed out.

By 2014, however, it was already terribly rusted, and more recent photographs showed it is all but a skeleton of a ship. If the Navy had maintained the ship ā€” which is its duty, neglect of which is a crime ā€” it would look like its well-maintained sister ship, BRP Benguet. It deteriorated because of the agreement not to supply it with repair materials.

Second, two DFA documents report the Chinese demand for the Philippines to comply with its promise. In his April 23, 2013 memorandum to President Aquino 3rd, marked “confidential,” then Foreign Affairs Secretary 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 there was an agreement or not.

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?

Claims

A year later, in a March 7, 2014 memorandum to del Rosario, then ambassador to Beijing Erlinda Basilio relayed the statements 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 commitment were true or not.

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, including that of del Rosario, they were confirming that there was such a commitment.

A third proof: A 2022 book by Gregory Poling, one of the US’ foremost China-bashing analysts, especially with regard to the South China Sea issue, and reputedly with strong links with US intelligence, reported:

“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.”

Impossible

It is impossible for Foreign Affairs Secretary Enrique Manalo not to have briefed President Marcos about the Ayungin Shoal issue and China’s demand to his predecessor to comply with the agreement entered into by the Estrada’s government in 1999 to tow away the BRP Sierra Madre. After all, while the impression is that we have a territorial and maritime dispute with China over the “South China Sea,” in reality, the only remaining flashpoint is the Ayungin Shoal and the removal of the BRP Sierra Madre.

If Manalo had not briefed Marcos on this issue, or if the latter had not asked his foreign secretary to do so, or had not understood it, then for chrissakes, the two should resign for neglecting their duties, especially over one involving our relations with the superpower in our neighborhood, China.

Indeed, Marcos said while he was still in Washington, D.C., for that propaganda event called the Trilateral Alliance meet, he said he was “horrified” that our country’s sovereign rights in the South China Sea might have been compromised by a gentleman’s agreement between former President Rodrigo Duterte and China.

Marcos, however, knew that the “gentleman’s agreement” was merely a continuation of the original pact in 1999 on the handling of the BRP Sierra Madre and the adoption of its no-provocation principle throughout the disputed islands. Yet he took advantage of the media’s gullibility in believing there was no pact made in 1999 ā€” repeated again and again in the Hitlerian fashion by his minions ā€” to distort the issue into a cheap propaganda tack to put down Duterte. Marcos said: “For me, it’s clear that they hid something ā€” they had discussions that were kept from the people.”

Marcos practically accused Duterte ā€” without whose support he would not have won the presidency in 2022 ā€” of betraying the country, telling him: “What did you give away? Why is our friend China angry at us because of that agreement? What should we do? What does that agreement entail?”

What kind of president do we have who distorts an issue of national importance ā€” which would have explained why China has been water-cannoning our resupply boats to the BRP Sierra Madre and dangerously maneuvering their vessels to block ours ā€” into a cheap, unfair propaganda tack against his predecessor?

There is one big reason why this Ayungin Shoal/BRP Sierra Madre issue with vivid videos of huge China Coast Guard vessels turning away our puny wooden-hulled boats has suddenly emerged and in Marcos’ second year of office. It’s part of the US playbook, made in anticipation of China’s move to recover its rogue province, Taiwan.

That will be for Wednesday.

Postscript

When reports of a supposed agreement first broke out last year, Marcos declared haughtily: “If there does exist such an agreement, I rescind that agreement as of now.”

He really doesn’t get it. The agreement was really an accommodation for us. China would let the Philippines station a squad of soldiers there who would be regularly supplied with living necessities as long as long we don’t bring in construction and repair supplies for the vessel.

With the agreement rescinded by Marcos, China no longer has a commitment to allow even the stationing of soldiers on the vessel and the supplying of food. If our soldiers abandon the ship because of starvation, it will be dismantled by scavengers and eventually sink to the sea. China has no longer the commitment to let the Philippines itself tow the vessel away from Ayungin. China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy would tow it away, to our embarrassment, as Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi offered del Rosario to do in 2013. Wang was responding to del Rosario’s reply after he was asked why the Philippines had not removed the Sierra Madre: “We don’t have the money to move it.”

By rescinding the agreement, Marcos just gave the green signal to do whatever they wanted with BRP Sierra Madre. Good job. I hope he got US President Joe Biden to have US Navy ships escort our supply ships, or they die of starvation soon.


Facebook: Rigoberto Tiglao

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This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Dorina S. Rojas

    His actions are just as distorted as his brains and face show. He refuses drug tests because he is afraid of the truth. In case war breaks out, heaven forbid, Marcos Jr. will not even feel it. He is just as inutile as he is now.

  2. Giv

    My take, if the Philippines would have been a “rich” country like China, U.S., U.K. etc. then we could just have done exactly what China did, i.e. claim ownership, build airfields and place hypersonic missiles there, and no one will dare ever touch us – end of story; China’s claim was never proven to be right; the Philippines has a stronger case of ownership over China, however, that’s irrelevant when the Philippines is treated like a sickly, flea-riddled, stray dog.

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