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‘Learn to live in peace with China’

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This is the second part of an article by Prof. Emeritus Francisco “Dodong” Nemenzo, a former UP president and considered among the most respected intellectuals of his generation and the next.

Nemenzo, in his article, shows that he had not been brainwashed by US propagandists, something most of the academics in the UP appear to be.

Nemenzo article:

Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario’s ineptitude in managing an international conflict was amply demonstrated in the case of Scarborough.

The Scarborough Shoal is tiny and bare. It disappears at high tide, with only a couple of rocks protruding. It lies outside the Spratlys but inside the nine-dash line. Considering its physical contours, geologists are sure there is no petroleum or gas underneath. In bygone days, Scarborough had a marginal strategic value as a landmark for ships entering Manila Bay. We used to maintain a lighthouse there but abandoned it when it was falling apart and radar-equipped ships no longer needed a lighthouse. Left unoccupied, Scarborough was up for grabs.

It attracted Chinese attention in April 2012, when the Philippine Navy accosted eight Chinese fishing vessels that were collecting rare corals, giant clams and live sharks. This could have been handled through quiet diplomacy, following the protocol we followed in the past. This time, however, del Rosario sent a loud and insolent protest, asserting our sovereignty. The Chinese responded in like vein, asserting their claim based on the nine-dash line.

Then US Secretary of Secretary Henry Kissinger explaining in an official communication in 1975 that the MDT doesn’t apply to a Spratlys skirmish.

In support of del Rosario’s initiative, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin dispatched to the area our newly acquired (but antiquated) warship BRP Gregorio del Pilar. This threat of military action played right into the hands of China. The Chinese confronted Gazmin’s minuscule fleet with 80 to 100 coast guard, research and fishing vessels. Unable to scare them off, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar withdrew, giving as pretext an impending storm. The Chinese braved the storm, and as soon as our navy fled, they garrisoned Scarborough. Thanks to our macho posturing, the fishermen of Zambales lost access to a rich fishing ground.

Full control

With China now in full control of Scarborough, del Rosario compounded his initial mistake by lodging a legal case with the International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea (Itlos). His legal staff should have warned him that an international tribunal assumes jurisdiction of a case only if the contending parties agree, and even if the tribunal proceeds without the other party, it has no mechanism to enforce its decision. To put it bluntly, it was an exercise in futility. As expected, China refused to submit to arbitration, so our case was destined to rot in the Itlos files. It will lie there and die there, like Mona Lisa in the song.

President Aquino asked President Obama to endorse our Itlos case. Obama readily obliged. But what weight did his endorsement carry? Not even a moral one. The US had no moral stature to intervene because it is not a signatory to Unclos. And because China regards the US as its main adversary, Obama was the last person to influence Xi Jinping.

Amando Doronilla proposed to invite Vietnam to be a co-complainant. Vietnam astutely refused to join the Philippines in this futile game. Instead, Vietnam brought its case before the UN General Assembly. The General Assembly is another impotent body, but it is the best propaganda platform, much better than Itlos. Knowing the futility of international arbitration, Vietnam responded in a language the Chinese could understand, the language of guerrilla warfare.

Vietnam has had a tussle with China long before us. In 1974, the Chinese forcibly expelled the Vietnamese from the Crescent group of islands in the Paracels. At that time, Vietnam had only a ragtag navy; since then, however, it has beefed up its navy, but along with a different strategic concept. Retired Lt. Gen. Antonio Sotelo made an interesting observation that the Vietnamese navy, with its main force consisting of small but fast boats, prepared for guerrilla warfare in the sea.

Oil rig

Thus, when the Chinese put up an oil rig inside its exclusive economic zone, Vietnam engaged them in a bump-and-splash game. The small and fast Vietnamese vessels rammed the larger but sluggish Chinese ships. When the Chinese used water cannons, the Vietnamese also equipped their boats with water cannons. They persistently harassed the Chinese oil rig, so it was unable to function. The Chinese had to withdraw the oil rig.

Compare this to the way we confronted the Chinese in Scarborough.

We sent a few gray ships or military vessels, but the Chinese far outnumbered these with white ships or civilian vessels from their Maritime Law Enforcement Command and Maritime Surveillance Command, reinforced with research vessels and fishing boats. Had BRP Gregorio del Pilar opened fire, it would have brought in the Chinese navy to engage us in a conventional war, a kind of war we have no chance of winning.

Our government dared, apparently expecting America to come to our rescue. Unfortunately, the only support we got from the US were statements condemning Chinese behavior as “unacceptable.” The Vietnamese, by contrast, taking full responsibility for their own defense, displayed their capability to engage the Chinese in low-intensity conflict.


We should expect the same symbolic response from the US if we get into trouble in the Spratlys, especially under Joe Biden. I do not blame the US for extending only verbal support. We should blame ourselves for expecting more. America thinks primarily of its own interests. As a sovereign nation, we ought to fend for ourselves.

In 1975, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger made this explicit in an electronic telegram to the Commander-in-Chief of the US Pacific Command (CINCPAC). Under Article 5 of the Mutual Defense Treaty, he said, the US is committed to defend the Philippines only in the event of an armed attack on the “metropolitan territory.” The Spratlys do not belong to this category, he stressed. America regards the question of sovereignty over the Spratlys (including “Freedomland” or “Kalayaan”) as undetermined, and therefore, it takes no position on the merits of the claims of various disputants.

Kissinger recalled that the Spratlys were not part of Philippine territory ceded to the US by the 1898 treaty with Spain. When we negotiated the Mutual Defense Treaty, our panel did not assert a claim to any of the Spratly Islands. The US maps accompanying the presentation of the Mutual Defense Treaty also excluded the Spratlys from the territories covered. Kissinger concluded, “We do not see any legal basis for supporting the Philippine claim to the Spratlys.”

Let me quote his exact words: “Continuous, effective and uncontested occupation and administration of territory is a primary foundation for establishing sovereignty in absence of international settlement, but Philippine occupation could hardly be termed uncontested in the face of claims and protests of [the] Chinese and Vietnamese. … As a practical matter, we see precious little chance that Congress or the American people would support US intervention in the Spratlys dispute.”


Washington has not reversed this policy of Kissinger. After the lessons they learned in Afghanistan, it is most unlikely that they will risk a war with China for the sake of the Philippines.

China is building fortresses in the Spratlys and the Paracels but avoiding a frontal clash with the US. If its conflict with the US descends to the brink of war, China will employ economic rather than military weapons. The US is most vulnerable in this arena for reasons I mentioned earlier. We will be caught in the crossfire.

Both protagonists are using us for their own ends. The US is using us to implement its “Pivot to Asia,” while China treats us like a whipping boy to demonstrate to the other Asean countries that America is an undependable ally. Conscious that America still enjoys overwhelming military superiority, China will not attack metropolitan Philippines. But it can torment us in the South China Sea, knowing that the US is not going to risk war over these desolate islands.

America’s interest in Asia is temporary, but China’s is forever. We must learn how to live in peace with China. To find a way out of the trap del Rosario drove us into, the best option is to work with our Asean partners to negotiate a binding version of the Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. China may continue to refuse talking with the Asean as a bloc. But what is wrong with holding bilateral talks? The other Asean countries are already doing that, including Vietnam. China may agree to a multilateral conference if assured that the coastal states of Southeast Asia will not give the US a foothold in their territory.

Note: Nemenzo’s narrative of how the Scarborough Shoal standoff was resolved is wrong. As I have narrated in my book “Debacle” and in several columns, US State Department Assistant Secretary for Asia Kurt Campbell lied to then-Philippine ambassador to the US Jose Cuisia that there was an agreement for a simultaneous withdrawal of Chinese and Philippine vessels from the shoal. Cuisia then relayed Campbell’s lie to Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, who, without even confirming it from other sources (such as his counterpart, the Chinese foreign affairs minister, or even just the Chinese ambassador in Manila) convinced President Aquino 3rd that with the pact, he should immediately order the Philippine vessels out of the shoal. They followed Aquino’s orders and withdrew from the shoal; the Chinese didn’t — there was no such agreement. The Philippines practically turned over the shoal to the Chinese.

Facebook: Rigoberto Tiglao

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My website: www.rigobertotiglao.com

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