Neither party would leave the shoal’s lagoon, knowing full well the unwritten rule in territorial disputes not just in the Spratlys but all over the world: “If you leave a disputed territory you lose it and even if you can, you can’t use violence to get back to it, or the world will condemn you.”
There were two “backchannel talks” to resolve the dispute. One was ordered by Aquino. The other wasn’t and was—very significantly—an American initiative.
The talks which Aquino authorized was undertaken by Sen. Antonio Trillanes 4th. In his aide memoire on his talks that he made available to me (which I had published in full in “Trillanes: Aquino and Del Rosario lost Panatag Shoal to China”), Trillanes reported that he told Aquino on June 2, 2012 “that the Chinese agreed on a simultaneous withdrawal of the Chinese ships and the Philippine vessels. PNoy directed me to work on the sequential withdrawal of government ships inside the shoal.”
Trillanes wrote that a day later on June 4, “PNoy called me to inform me that our BFAR vessel has already left the shoal but China reneged on the agreement of simultaneous withdrawal of their ships, so two of them were still inside the shoal.”
Trillanes continued: “I asked him who agreed with what, since I was just hammering out the details of the sequential withdrawal because the mouth of the shoal was too narrow for a simultaneous withdrawal. The President told me that Sec. del Rosario told him about the agreement reached in Washington.”
“This time I asked PNoy: ‘If the agreement was simultaneous withdrawal, why did we leave first?’ PNoy responded to this effect: ‘Kaya nga sinabihan ko si Albert kung bakit niya pinalabas yung BFAR na hindi ko nalalaman.’” (‘That’s why I asked Albert [del Rosario] why he ordered the BFAR vessels to leave without my permission.’)"
Neither Aquino nor del Rosario have disputed this narrative. In fact, del Rosario himself unwittingly confirmed it when he wrote in an article in 2017. “During the impasse at Scarborough Shoal with China, we were approached by the US, an honest broker for both China and the Philippines, to agree to a simultaneous withdrawal of ships from the shoal. We therefore agreed. At the appointed time, we withdrew, whereas China did not — in violation of our agreement.”
However, neither the US nor China has admitted that there was such an agreement – only talks for such an agreement. Indeed, if there was such an agreement, would the “honest broker” US not have raised a ruckus that China reneged on an agreement it brokered?
A recent book by Marites Vitug, Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won its Maritime Case Against China is a one-sided pro-American paean to the Aquino government for filing and allegedly winning the arbitration case against China. Not surprisingly because of the author’s track record, it portrayed Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio as the brains, and the man-behind-the-scenes, of the suit against China,
However, the book unwittingly reveals what her patrons, and the US deep state even, have been concealing since 2012. Vitug wrote:
“Thousands of miles away from the turmoil in the shoal, in Washington, D.C., Kurt Campbell was closely watching the crisis between China and the Philippines unfold. He was Assistant Secretary at the State Department, the top diplomat in charge of Asia.
Campbell took the initiative to talk to China’s Foreign Affairs Vice Minister Fu Ying while she was in Washington D.C., Jose Cuisia, then the Philippines’ ambassador to the US, recalled.
‘He was the one who approached me suggesting that we find a solution to ease the tension in the South China Sea. Kurt was talking to me and the Chinese ambassador and I, in turn, would convey to Secretary del Rosario his proposal,’ Cuisia said.
Campbell also called del Rosario in Manila to inform him that he was brokering an arrangement which would break the impasse, Del Rosario confirmed. Campbell then met with Fu Ying in June 2012 in a hotel in Virginia to discuss a dangerous two-month stand-off taking place in the South China Sea.
By the end of the meeting, Campbell believed he had an agreement for both sides to withdraw. The Philippine ships left the Scarborough Shoal and returned home.
The Chinese, however, stayed in the area. Cuisia recounted: ‘When the Chinese did not fulfill their commitment to pull out, I got a call from del Rosario asking me why had the Chinese not pulled out. I, in turn, called Kurt and he suggested we give the Chinese some time.
Much later, Fu denied there had been any deal between her and US diplomats in 2012. ‘I do not know what agreement you are referring to…. The Chinese vessels did not leave the area because they feared the Philippines might double-cross them,’ the Financial Times reported. ‘All China is doing is to keep an eye on the island for fear that the Philippines would do it again.’”
The episode shows the huge costs to the country as a result of either or all of del Rosario and his boss Aquino’s incompetence, their naiveté, or worse, blind faith in an American mediator.
Any diplomat worth his salt would have known that Fu, even if she was a ranking foreign ministry official, would have to seek the approval of her higher-ups in Beijing for such an agreement, which could take not just days but weeks. Only an extremely naïve person or one ignorant on how states work would believe that Fu could commit her government to foreign nations on such an important decision.
This is especially so since the episode had become an explosive issue in China that roused Chinese indignation, since the press narrative was that a Philippine warship had intruded into Chinese territory and arrested several of their fishermen,
Del Rosario didn’t even seek Aquino’s permission, nor even sought the counsel of the National Security Council – for a decision that led to the loss of our territory.
What reveals del Rosario, Cuisia, and even Vitug’s naivete, is that none of them seemed to be interested who the US diplomat Kurt Campbell is, whom the former foreign secretary concluded was an “honest broker.”
Another explanation, as revealed in a secret cable to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is that the US pressured the Philippines to leave Scarborough Shoal, whether or not the Chinese left.
Clinton’s deputy chief of staff reported to her on June 17, a week after our ships abandoned Scarborough: “We put a lot of pressure on the Philippines to step back and if anything it looks as if the Chinese are consolidating their position.”
On Wednesday, I’ll point out why knowing who Campbell was would reveal what the Scarborough Shoal episode really was.
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