In this post I’m developing at length several themes that I touched upon in my most recent article up exclusively at Asia Times on the current pivot hot button: South China Sea Dispute: Rewriting the History of Scarborough Shoal.
There is currently a great deal of handwringing as to whether the PRC will island-build the shoal as a pricetag retaliation if the Philippines if, as expected, it wins its arbitration case under UNCLOS.
If the PRC proceeds, it would be a pretty big deal, especially since the PRC never had anything on the atoll previously and would be sticking a finger in the eye of ASEAN and the Declaration of Conduct standstill agreement. But never say never. And don’t be surprised if the PRC is doing some back-channeling to the Philippines at the same time to offer some carrots with its sticks, like the suggestion recently floated for non-exclusive traditional fishing rights inside EEZs.
Holy writ for pivoteers is that the PRC seized Scarborough Shoal in 2012, proving both its duplicity and the futility of bilateral engagement, so the Philippines had no choice but to internationalize the dispute by taking its South China Sea issues to binding arbitration under UNCLOS, and the US had no choice but to insert itself into the South China Sea between an aggressor state and its helpless victims.
The reality is that the PRC and the Philippines were successfully negotiating their differences bilaterally, so successfully in fact that the Philippine Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Alberto Del Rosario had to step up to sabotage the talks.
If the only concrete outcome of the decision to adopt a strategy of open confrontation under internationalization is the permanent alienation to the PRC of the fishing grounds at Scarborough Shoal the whole UNCLOS process was supposedly designed to secure, people in the Philippines and, for that matter, governments around the South China Sea are going to ask, what exactly did this brilliant strategy accomplish?
Alberto Del Rosario’s role as hatchet-man for the pivot has become extremely difficult to dispute as more facts about the events of 2012 emerge in the Philippines. The only murky part—the degree of conspiratorial canoodling between Del Rosario and pivot pappy Kurt Campbell, at that time Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs—awaits unraveling by the dogged foreign policy journalists of the American press.
I have, over the last couple years, expended a certain amount of righteous spittle to debunk the story floated by the United States in 2014—that the PRC had reneged on a deal negotiated in a Virginia motel room between Kurt Campbell and PRC Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Fu Ying for a simultaneous withdrawal from Scarborough Shoal, thereby necessitating the Philippines’ internationalizing of the dispute, with US moral and military support becoming more and more overt until today we have the US conducting joint military exercises with the Philippines on the periphery of the South China Sea to deter further PRC adventurism.
As the Financial Times reported the official version in 2014:
With typhoon season fast approaching, the US tried to broker a resolution. By the end of the meeting between Kurt Campbell, then the top US diplomat for Asia, and Fu Ying, China’s vice foreign minister for Asia, the US side believed they had an agreement for both sides to withdraw. The following week, the Philippines ships left the Scarborough Shoal and returned home. The Chinese, however, stayed in the area.
The Scarborough Shoal case played a big role in another part of the new approach by the US and its allies: the appeal to the courts. Albert del Rosario told the FT that it was the “catalyst” for Manila’s decision to bring China to an international court over its expansive claims in the South China Sea.
Actually, Kurt Campbell’s one-off in Virginia collided with an intensive series of 16 negotiations by a Philippine senator, Antonio Trillanes IV, conducted at the behest of President Aquino and deliberately bypassing the pro-US China hawk Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Alberto Del Rosario.
Part of the messy deal had come out in September 2012 during a contentious encounter in the Philippine Senate designed to discredit and embarrass Trillanes. I covered that in my current AT piece and in my 2014 Debunking America’s Scarborough Shoal Dolchstoss Meme.
In my Asia Times piece, I also build on my 2014 story to incorporate some reporting by Rigoberto Tiglao, a Philippine journalist who had obtained a copy of a four-page Aide Memoire prepared by Trillanes to further explain his side of the story. It persuasively describes a concerted effort by Del Rosario to sabotage Trillanes’ negotiations and force the Scarborough process away from a bilaterally-negotiated resolution of a fisheries dispute to an interminable festering regional crisis and potential flashpoint for a US-PRC war.
Persuasive enough for Tiglao—who does not present himself as much of a Trillanes fan—to conclude:
As described in a series of columns by Tiglao, the Aide Memoire paints a pretty clear picture of Del Rosario screwing up Trillanes’ Scarborough Shoal deal– for a sequentialwithdrawal, not a simultaneous withdrawal, of Philippine and PRC vessels–with the help of a phone call from the US. I have bolded some prime bits for emphasis.
“PNoy [President Aquino] directed me to work on the sequential withdrawal of government ships inside the shoal. However, on the morning of June 4, PNoy called me to inform me that our BFAR [Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources] 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.
“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.”)
“Around 10 June, PNoy informed me that the (remaining BFAR) vessel was ordered to proceed to Subic to undergo repairs and directed me to ask Beijing to reciprocate. On 15 June, PNoy informed me again that he has ordered the pullout of the 2 remaining PCG (Philippine Coast Guard) ships from the shoal, citing an incoming typhoon as the reason, and directed me to ask Beijing to reciprocate.
In other words: Trillanes is negotiating a sequential withdrawal on behalf of the president of the Philippines. Del Rosario, who has been shut out of the negotiations, gets a message from the US (apparently a phone call in the middle of the night from US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas), orders a unilateral withdrawal from the shoal without telling his own president, and then accuses the PRC of violating an agreement for a simultaneous withdrawal.
Tiglao’s web page provides some further information on the Aide Memoire as excerpted below. A few points worth noting:
Although Trillanes’ effort is described as a “backchannel”, Aquino’s cabinet knew about it. During one phone call from Beijing, Aquino put Trillanes on speakerphone and Rosario was among the listeners.
During Trillanes’ stint as backchannel negotiator in 2012, there were persistent reports that del Rosario detested the senator’s role, and had even threatened to resign his post, as he wasn’t consulted on the matter.
It is in the course of his “back-channelling” mission that he concluded that del Rosario was provoking the Chinese, so much so that an angry Trillanes blurted out: “He should be shot by firing squad for what he did.”
Despite his knowledge that Aquino was making progress through Trillanes, Del Rosario also dispatched his own envoy, utility-and-everything tycoon Manuel V. Pangilinan (known by his initials as “MVP”) to Beijing, perhaps in an attempt to undercut Trillanes’ role.
MVP and Del Rosario are joined at the hip, both as business partners and allies in advancing the US-Philippine relationship. Reportedly Del Rosario, now retired from the MFA, is slated to take on the leadership of a new foreign policy think tank generously funded by MVP. It is rumored that MVP is a front man, albeit supremely capable, for the Salim family of Indonesia in order to disguise its control of various strategic Philippine industries that are supposed to be indigenously owned. Del Rosario himself is one of the richest people in the Philippines, perhaps richer than MVP, and it’s a question who’s dog is wagging whose tail.
In a further gotta-be-Asia complications, one of MVP’s companies owns the development rights to the undersea hydrocarbon play at Reed Bank. Reed Bank has been on the agenda for joint Philippine-PRC development for a dog’s age, but will be a matter of (relatively) undisputed sole Philippine development rights if the UNCLOS arbitration goes Manila’s way. In any case, the PRC’s interest in Reed Bank ensures MVP a high-level reception at least in the petroleum sector and he can leverage that to claim if not actually enjoy a privileged capacity as an interlocutor with the PRC on the Philippines.
I’m guessing MVP went to Beijing to tell whoever he met with that the Philippine Foreign Affairs and Defense ministries were dead set against Trillanes’ initiative, he was crazy bananas, and even if the bilateral blows up, no hard feelings, we can still work on Reed Bank together. And his message back to Aquino, hey, we’re solid with the PRC on Reed Bank, they think Trillanes is crazy bananas, let Del Rosario handle Scarborough…
According to Trillanes’ inquiries, after doing his best to blow up the deal by disrupting the negotiations and then interfering with the early June withdrawal, Del Rosario apparently planted false news stories in the Philippine papers to paint a picture of the PRC humiliating the Philippines and turning potential appeasement over the Scarborough Shoal a matter of hot-button nationalism.
Trillanes, in his paper, pointed out that following Aquino’s orders, he had succeeded in his back-channel talks with Chinese officials, so that they ordered on June 10, 2012 the withdrawal from the disputed Scarborough Shoal (Bajo de Masinloc on our maps) of their Coastal Marine Surveillance (CMS) ships and 14 fishing boats. Our two Bureau of Fishing and Aquatic Resources vessels, as part of the agreement, also left the area.
Nine days later, though, Aquino called Trillanes to say that they were “betrayed by China.” Aquino referred him to the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s huge banner-photo which showed Chinese uniformed personnel holding a Chinese flag on the shoal, with the headline in huge fonts screaming: “China ships stay on shoal.”
Trillanes in his report wrote that his Beijing negotiators denied the news story, and pointed out that the photo was an old one from the 1980s. The senator himself had suspected so, as the photo had clear blue skies and calm waters as background, when in fact a typhoon was passing through the area at the time the photo was published.
According to subsequent reports, the Chinese ships, both their CMS vessels and the fishing boats, indeed, had left the shoal, although as Trillanes said in his report, the Chinese would not announce that this was due to negotiations with the Philippine government. The official explanation of the foreign ministry was that the ships escorted the fishing boats to the Chinese mainland to escape an impending typhoon that would pass over the shoal.
“On 24 June, the Philippine Daily Inquirer published a story about a Chinese vessel ramming a Filipino fishing boat. Again, P-Noy called me and he was furious about this incident. I told him that I would ask Beijing about it. When I confronted the negotiators, they told me that their ships [were] in place and that the incident happened in an area that was at least 150 nautical miles away.
“So I investigated further by sending somebody to talk to one of the survivors who was then confined in Ilocos Sur. The survivor said that they were already sinking while tied to a fish marker and that they were not rammed at all. I then asked around again in the Inquirer as to who fed the story. My sources then revealed that the story came from Sec. del Rosario.”
According to Trillanes’ Aide Memoire, the sequential withdrawal he had negotiated with the PRC was still proceeding in early July, despite Del Rosario’s multiple efforts to drive a stake in its heart.
The final confrontation came in a cabinet meeting in early July. The point at issue: whether to “internationalize” the Scarborough crisis by raising it as a matter for a joint statement at the upcoming ASEAN Regional Forum, or not. According to Trillanes, if the Philippines stuck to the bilateral process and didn’t make a fuss at ASEAN, the PRC would withdraw the last three ships it had in the shoal.
According to Trillanes, he recommended in an executive Cabinet meeting on July 5 that Aquino adopt a bilateral approach to resolving the territorial dispute with China, especially that over the Scarborough Shoal.
Trillanes told Aquino that the Chinese made the commitment to pull out the remaining three CMS vessels if the Philippines does not internationalize it by raising the issue to the Asean Regional Forum scheduled for July 12. The Chinese, he said, also assured him that they would not put up any structure around the shoal.
“I clearly remember USec. Henry Bensurto with a PowerPoint presentation telling everybody in the meeting that the annexation of Scarborough Shoal by China would be used as a springboard to claim Western Luzon. Sec. del Rosario proceeded to present that China had almost 100 vessels in and around the shoal; that they placed a rope at the entrance of the shoal and the Chinese were duplicitous.”
(“USec Henry Bensurto” was not an undersecretary but a foreign affairs department assistant secretary heading its West Philippine Sea Center, and the Secretary-General of the Commission on Maritime and Ocean Affairs Secretariat.)
“The rope at the entrance of the shoal” del Rosario alleged is sheer nonsense, a source familiar with Scarborough shoal explained. The “rope” seen by Coast Guard personnel was a remnant of anchor ropes floating near the entrance of the shoal.
“It was at this point that Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile… raised the ante and proposed on the table that we study the option of completely cutting ties with China. Sec. del Rosario and Sec. Almendras followed suit and the discussion went on with NEDA detailing how many percentage points would be shaved off the GDP; DTI, explaining that the electronics exports sectors would be gravely affected; and DOLE, saying how many OFWs would be repatriated, etc.”
It would be interesting to find out why the cabinet thought the threat of a PRC invasion of western Luzon was real enough to risk entering an economic and diplomatic deep freeze with the PRC. In any case, at this point Trillanes’ name was definitely mud through some combination of his own mis-steps, machinations of his enemies and, I’m guessing, Aquino’s anxiety to avoid getting painted into the “unpatriotic China appeaser” corner the China hawks in the media and inside his administration had prepared for him. Del Rosario carried the day:
Del Rosario took the issue to ASEAN in coordination with Vietnam and tried to insert an explicit reference to the Scarborough Shoal/SCS EEZ issues into the final communique. Cambodia resisted, at the PRC’s behest, and as a result of the deadlock no joint communique was issued for the first time in the 47 years of ASEAN’s history.
The leaked notes of the ASEAN deliberations found their way to Carleton Thayer, who prepared a lengthy analysis for Japan Focus that placed the onus on the PRC and Cambodia.
However, given what we know now of the Philippine cabinet’s decision to internationalize the dispute, however, it appears more likely that Del Rosario came to the ASEAN meeting knowing he wouldn’t compromise and it was just a matter of managing the endgame and the resultant fallout.
Del Rosario argued that China’s actions challenged ASEAN centrality, leadership and solidarity. The Philippines, as the aggrieved party and one of the founding members of ASEAN, failed to understand the lack of concern by some other members and their “seeming silence” on their commitment to the principles of the DOC, he concluded. Del Rosario then asked rhetorically, “what would be the real value of the COC if we could not uphold the DOC; in Scarborough Shoal the DOC is violated?” He stated that it was “important that ASEAN [make a] collective commitment to uphold the DOC [and this] be reflected in the joint communiqué of the AMM.”
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs applied an additional eggbeater to troubled waters with this post-ASEAN statement:
“On the reference to ‘duplicity and intimidation,’ the Philippines forged an agreement with a neighboring country for the simultaneous pullout of all vessels inside the shoal, which we undertook in good hfaith on June 4. Furthermore, the neighboring country agreed to remove its barrier at the entrance of the shoal.
“Yet to this day, the neighboring country has not fulfilled its obligations under the agreement and has maintained its ships inside and outside the shoal, as well as its barrier, in its aim to establish effective control and jurisdiction in the shoal and surrounding waters.”
In parsing the DFA statement, recall that 1) the PRC had agreed to a sequential, not simultaneous pullout and 2) according to Trillanes the “barrier” was a bogus reference to a piece of rope seen floating in the water at the mouth of the shoal. In other words, just another of many layer of public relations BS applied (and I suspect, still applied) to the Scarborough/SCS issues by the Department of Foreign Affairs.
It’s very hard to argue against the conclusion that Del Rosario wanted to take the case to international arbitration and foreclose the options of a Philippine-PRC bilateral or ASEAN-focused conciliation. Even if it involved a considerable amount of dirty work.
When Enrile read the notes of Sonja Brady, the Philippine ambassador, concerning her recollection of her discussions with Trillanes in Beijing, it included this account of Trillanes’ observations:
When [Trillanes] got involved it was in the height of the problem; he had to find out what was happening so he tried to see whether this was a move of the Americans. He was suspecting the Americans as involved in the conflict…We are internationalizing the issue because of Secretary Del Rosario. This is his move…There was never any negotiations between the Chinese and the Americans, just a meeting with Kurt Campbell.
Trillanes seems to have regarded the internationalization gambit as the work of his arch-nemesis, Alberto Del Rosario. He also accused Del Rosario of treason, not because Del Rosario was working for the United States, but because Del Rosario had been abandoned by the United States and was recklessly playing a lone hand in favor of internationalization.
Maybe Trillanes believed this, or maybe he wanted to tout the superior legitimacy of his channel, informal but endorsed by the president of the Philippines, over that of the Secretary of Foreign Affairs.
Given the fortuitously misleading phone call from the US Embassy in June 2012, and the 2014 revelation of the purported motel breakthrough negotiated by Kurt Campbell with Mdme. Fu Ying, Del Rosario’s undermining of the Trillanes negotiation through multiple activities over a period of months…perhaps more was involved than the unassisted initiative of a decisive, turf-protecting pro-US millionaire at the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs ready to defy his president in executing a personal China policy.
It is, of course, possible that Kurt Campbell innocently engaged in some great power diplomacy ignorant of the Trillanes channel and Del Rosario’s machinations, and the whole thing backfired, so sorry…but even so the US inadvertently harvested the benefits of the polarization of relations between the PRC and the Philippines when proponents of the US alliance were able to push through the “Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement” that signaled the de facto return of US military forces to Philippine bases 25 years after they were kicked out.
On the other hand, Del Rosario was an aggressive advocate for the American relationship, the key phone call that let him torpedo Trillanes’ sequential withdrawal arrangement came from the US ambassador, and I find it difficult to believe that the Philippine cabinet would agree to internationalize the dispute and provoke the PRC without pretty strong confidence that the USA had its back.
It would make sense for Del Rosario and the United States to downplay the US role in 2012 in order to strengthen Del Rosario’s hand as a principled, independent player at ASEAN, and then float the motel room tale in 2014 to paint the PRC’s actions on Scarborough Shoal as a breach of trust with the United States, now prepared to escalate its South China Sea game, as well as the Philippines.
And in 2016 high profile indignation is the order of the day, now that it may be necessary to finesse the blowback if Del Rosario’s pro-US initiative ends up with the PRC island building and permanently alienating the Scarborough Shoal from the Philippines.
I, for one, can visualize an episode of near-panic in the US State Department in 2012 when Del Rosario warns them that a bilateral agreement between the Philippines and the PRC—one that would undercut the entire US pivot narrative that only an internationalized US-led united front can bring security and stability to the SCS and East Asia—is looming. Time for bold, determined action, perhaps, like helping Del Rosario sabotage the sequential withdrawal by providing him a pretext to order the Philippines ships out of the shoal and then accuse the PRC of reneging on a vague deal purportedly negotiated in a motel in Virginia.
This tangled history might also explain why the Obama administration has been loath, at least until now, to make a huge deal out of Scarborough Shoal despite the vociferous complaints of the China hawks.