A month before he steps down from office, President Benigno Aquino 3rd looked back at the 2012 standoff in Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal to explain his decisions on the incident that worsened the conflict between Manila and Beijing.
President-elect Rodrigo Duterte has promised to investigate how the country lost control of the shoal that is also known as Bajo de Masinloc because it is located 120 nautical miles off Zambales province.
China reclaimed at least seven maritime features in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), building artificial islands that now host runways and missiles.
Duterte also questioned the role played by his top critic, Sen. Antonio Trillanes 4th, who did back-channeling talks between the Philippines and China.
In a television interview, Aquino explained that he decided to start the backchannel talks when formal diplomatic negotiations failed.
“The way I remember it, Senator Trillanes was approached kasi (because) in formal channels wala ng nangyayari (nothing was happening),” the President said.
“We tried to have an informal channels to include talking to our special envoys to China. Pwede nyo bang lapitan ang mga contacts nyo dyan (Can you approach your contacts)?” he added.
The standoff in Scarborough began on April 8, 2012 when the Philippine Navy warship BRP Gregorio Del Pilar arrested Chinese fishermen poaching in traditional fishing grounds for Filipino fishermen from Pangasinan and neighboring provinces.
The Philippines was criticized for sending a warship instead of a civilian vessel.
But Aquino said the BRP Gregorio Del Pilar was on its way “to look for the debris coming from the North Korean satellite” when it spotted the Chinese poachers.
“On the way there nakita yung (they saw) eight Chinese fishing vessels. They were in our exclusive economic zone… so sinita (they were apprehended) in accordance with their laws and also in accordance with UNCLOS,” Aquino said, referring to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.
“That is allowed. Kinunfront tayo nung coast guard na Chinese tapos dun nag umpisa ang standoff (We were confronted by the Chinese Coast Guard and that started the standoff).
How can one country withdraw without losing face? Sa Asian medyo malaki ang map, sino ba ang napahiya dito (In Asia the map is big, who will be embarrassed here)?” Aquino added.
Chinese coast guard vessels stopped the arrest, fueling the standoff that Aquino said eventually involved Philippines’ treaty ally, the United States.
The President said the US brokered the talks and there was an agreement for all parties to depart the shoal.
The Philippines withdrew, but China did not.
“I’d like to thank Americans at some point in time. Nagbroker sila, more or less, somewhat simultaneous departure. At dun tayo nagkaroon ng question kung sino ang nauna, paano ang sabayan (We had questions who should go first, how we will leave). Eventually, China said wala kaming inagreehan na ganyan (we did not agree to anything like that),” Aquino said.
Chinese Coast Guard vessels have since occupied the shoal, preventing Filipino fishermen access to their traditional fishing grounds.
China’s refusal to withdraw its ships prompted the Philippines to file a case before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, the Netherlands.
Citing the UNCLOS, the Philippines asked the international body to decide which country has the right over the disputed maritime features.
The international court is expected to issue its ruling before Aquino steps down on June 30.