Still reading up — and there is a lot of reading up to do — about the decision on the West Philippine Sea, but have found it scary irresponsible that mainstream and social media have taken on this celebratory tone, with the contingent demand that we all join in with as much fervour and gratefulness to former President Aquino.
But a sense of recent history, of what brought us here, is important towards understanding why Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay is correct about handling the results of this case with calm and restraint, and pushing for bilateral talks with China after this ruling. A sense of history would reveal that this is as much the Philippines’ fault, we had our share of missteps and mishaps, which undoubtedly brought us to this point as well.
There is no other way of saying it: President Aquino bungled relations with China to begin with, and this whole crisis was brought on by his own missteps in dealing with China as a neighbour, something that all Presidents before him did well (and obviously better) by working towards and then following the 2002 agreement we signed in Phnom Penh, with China and other ASEAN nations.
Thereafter, despite our irreconcilable differences, all claimants to the territories in the South China Sea agreed to negotiate their claims through peaceful diplomatic negotiation – or until the ASEAN and China can craft a mutually acceptable code of conduct for all claimants to adapt and conform.
The history of our relations over our shared seas has been written and needs to be read. It tells us all that before former President Aquino, WE were talking to each other over our shared seas. And sure there would be stand-offs and sometimes a crisis or two would escalate, but we are reminded by the United Nations and international law itself that we are required to engage in bilateral talks over disputes.
Let’s start from the beginning. In August 2010, eight Hong Kong nationals died in the Luneta bus hostage taking. President Aquino refused to apologize for these deaths, even when the failed rescue operation is well-documented.
In April 2011, it was the Philippines who, without explanation and beyond agreed protocols, inspected Chinese fishing vessels that were at our shared shoal’s lagoon in the West Philippine Sea. Under the 2002 agreement which was in effect at that time, the Philippine government should have:
<…> asked the Chinese vessels to leave the areas and file a formal protest against the presence of Chinese fishing vessels in the Scarborough Shoal and settle the issue through peaceful diplomatic negotiation while waiting for an agreed Code of Conduct to guide the claimants in the settlement of disputes over contested territories.
It is a mystery why the Navy decided to inspect the Chinese fishing vessels: the shoal’s lagoon has for decades been used both by Chinese and Filipino small fishermen.
This might be Aquino’s biggest mistake.
The use of BRP Gregorio del Pilar, a warship, to arrest Chinese fishing vessels changed the atmosphere in the maritime row. The rules of engagement in a sea conflict is “white to white, gray to gray.” “White to white” means civilian ships are to deal only with civilian vessels. “Gray to gray” means navy to navy.
Aquino failed to follow the rules of sharing the seas that have worked all these years — even as we were already in the midst of arguing against China’s claims of the nine-dash-line since 2009.
This was also that one instance when the Philippines was the bully, the agressor, in this relationship with China: magpadala ka ba naman ng warship laban sa fishing boats?
Aquino pulled out the Navy ship, but it was too late. At that point, China had already sent its own China Maritime Surveillance (CMS) ships (civilian vessels), fishing boats, and dinghies. The Philippines had its Coast Guard vessels. It was a stand-off.
And we made it worse. Usually cases of PH or China fishermen are resolved on the provincial or regional level.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario aggravated the situation when, instead of quiet negotiations, he went to media. He announced he was summoning the Chinese ambassador to file a diplomatic protest. Then he held a press conference with Philippine Navy Chief Alexander Pama and Philippine Coast Guard Commandant Vice Admiral Edmund C. Tan.
By doing so, Del Rosario raised the issue of arrest of fishing vessels to the ministerial level, a step lower than the presidential level.
Aquino sent Senator Trillanes to speak with China, while Foreign Affairs Secretary del Rosario “was talking with Kurt Campbell, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, who was talking with Fu Ying, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs in charge of ‘Asia, boundary and ocean affairs and translation and interpretation’ and fourth in the hierarchy in China’s foreign ministry.”
On June 7 2011, President Aquino tells the Philippine vessels to withdraw from Scarborough Shoal, while Senator Trillanes was still engaging in backchannel talks. Again, big mistake.
Aquino tells Trillanes that he ordered the ships out as del Rosario was told by the US that the Chinese had agreed to withdraw their vessels simultaneously with our ships. Trillanes was incredulous, telling Aquino that he was just in the midst of negotiations with the Chinese.
It was such a colossal boo-boo for us, a lesson never, never again to elect a stupid incompetent to head the nation. The Chinese were probably rolling in the ground laughing as Aquino gave them the excuse to take over Scarborough by sending a warship, which technically was a military move, only to withdraw it two days later, giving them total physical control of the territory.
Based on the account of Trillanes, it seems that this was also about two options as far as the President and his Cabinet were concerned: continue with the bilateral talks with China, or “internationalize” it and raise it as an issue at the then upcoming Asean Regional Forum (ARF). Foreign Affairs Secretary Del Rosario was for bringing it to the ARF, and this is what Aquino would decide to do.
Another huge mistake. “We were snubbed by the ASEAN,” and so whatever Chinese vessels were still in Scarborough (which through Trillanes’s back channeling had been brought down to three), would stay. And the Philippines had no boats there at that point, having been pulled out by Aquino on the advice of the US, who said China would pull out at the same time.
This is what set the stage for going to the Permanent Aribitral Court. Sure, it’s great that the nine-dash-line has been challenged, and we won on that challenge. And yes, it’s great that our fishermen will now have a right to fish in those shared waters. But the nine-dash-line claim was already under discussion anyway WITHIN the ASEAN and with China since 2009.
Given this history, one also gathers that this case to begin with was not primarily about sovereignty over those waters at all.
It was about a set of mistakes that the Aquino government was trying to fix, not by bilateral talks (which in fact it refused to engage in properly and in the long-term), nor by respecting our membership in the ASEAN and the agreements we’ve signed with China which were in effect.
Embarrassed and livid, Aquino would tell the nation there was no other alternative but to file a case in an international venue, which turned out to be the Permanent Arbitral Court, against the Chinese takeover of Scarborough.
So the Philippine government hired the best foreign lawyers, which Edwin Lacierda defended:
“These are lawyers who have international reputation appearing before the tribunal. We can rely on them. They’ve been with us from the start, since we filed the case. We have the knowledge, but in so far as appearing before international tribunal, you get the best persons you can hire for that. It will be foolhardy for us not to hire experts with experience with appearing before this tribunal.”
Contextualize that in this fact: in 2013, Aquino recounted his conversation with Hong Kong Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, on the Luneta bus hostage taking and his refusal to apologize:
“So sabi ko, that’s your culture. You practice those, that’s your system. But in our system iyong… we cannot admit wrongdoing if it’s not ours… From our perspective, there is one lone gunman responsible for this tragedy.”
In 2014, it would be revealed why exactly the President refused to apologize, via an anonymous senior diplomat who spoke with the South China Morning Post:
“(President Aquino) is afraid that once he makes an apology, the Hong Kong victims’ families, who also have a strong legal sense, will take action to sue the government for misconduct and seek compensation. That would be a big burden for a poor country.”
A poor country that decided to spend its taxpayers’ money on fighting this West Philippine Sea case out in an international court, when within the ASEAN — and without US intervention of any form — there are ways of dealing with these disputes, peacefully and amicably and democratically.
And no, it’s not true that bilateral talks were exhausted. This timeline also tells you that bilateral talks were messed up by the insistence on including the US in the conversation. Trillanes was sent by Aquino to speak with China; Del Rosario was speaking to a US Assistant Secretary of State, who was in turn speaking with an official from China, for reasons that are unexplained. Why did Del Rosario need to pass through the US to speak to China at all? And how can you say that this even counts as part of “exhausted bilateral talks”?
And now that we’ve won the case in the international court, you ask that we all celebrate? A sense of the roots of this problem will reveal that this is not, was not, begun by China claiming the nine-dash-line; neither was it about its construction of facilities in Scarborough Shoal. That happened after the Philippines had bungled up its engagement with China, that was a reaction to how Aquino, Del Rosario and the US decided to go beyond the ASEAN agreement we signed about the South China Sea, that is about how Aquino etal decided to use as (imagined?) leverage the idea of the US as ally, and then allowing them to build a naval base in Palawan, facing the West Philippine Sea.
And this is why it’s infinitely dangerous to be demanding “official euphoria” at this point in time. For what are we being euphoric about? The crises remains the same, and it’s the same because of the mistakes the past government made, mistakes it refused to apologize for. On #DaangMatuwid, bullishness took the place of peaceful democratic relations with China, and while this has brought about this win, it also has created a perception that we are bullies ourselves, we are irrational, we are ones who refused bilateral talks, we are the ones who cannot get anywhere without US intervention.
The lack of a unified statement from the ASEAN itself as an organization is telling of how we are being viewed at this point.
This context in recent history is one of many narratives that President Duterte and Secretary Yasay have to work with and against, in planning our next moves as a member of the ASEAN and as one of five countries that have lived all these years sharing the South China Sea, engaging with China as a sovereign country, without big brother America dictating our next moves.
To me, it is disproving this US connection that will be critical at this point. Because China, and no other country in the ASEAN, will trust us at this point, when we ourselves cannot claim sovereignty from America.
I cross my fingers that President Duterte, in the process of speaking about our relationship with China and where to go from here, might also clarify his stand on our relationship with the US and how it has made things worse for us given our relationship with our Asian neighbors. For really, why would anyone trust a country that has American bases being built all over the country as we speak, including one that’s facing the South China Sea?