POSTSCRIPT / May 31, 2016 / Tuesday


Opinion Columnist

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Aquino: US brokered failed Panatag deal

FOUR YEARS after he lost Scarborough (Panatag) shoal to China and three weeks after he was accused of treason for it, President Noynoy Aquino is explaining why he abandoned to Chinese poachers the rich Filipino fishing ground off the Zambales coast.

Clearing himself of liability for surrendering that shoal 120 miles west of Subic Bay, well within the country’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone, Mr. Aquino accused Beijing of reneging on an agreement for Chinese and Filipino vessels to simultaneously leave the area in 2012.

The agreement for withdrawal was brokered by the United States to ease the tension and enable the Asian neighbors to save face, the President told newsmen covering his inauguration last week of the Balog-balog dam-irrigation project in San Jose, Tarlac.

The issue was raised another notch last May 6 when the camp of President-elect Rody Duterte filed treason and espionage charges against President Aquino and Sen. Antonio Trillanes for holding “back channel talks” to resolve the 10-week standoff.

The secret talks allegedly conducted in violation of protocol saw the disclosure of state secrets to the Chinese side, according to Duterte’s lawyers.

While the crime of treason may not hold eventually, its filing highlights the vulnerability of President Aquino, after he steps down on June 30, to serious charges — including his constitutionally challenged use of funds under his Disbursement Acceleration Program.

The Scarborough standoff with China began on April 8, 2012, when Philippine Navy flagship BRP Gregorio del Pilar caught eight Chinese fishing vessels poaching in the shoal.

When inspected, some of the boats yielded endangered marine species such as corals, baby sharks and giant clams whose capture and possession are illegal under Philippine law and international conventions.

“So a standoff occurred,” Mr. Aquino said. “We replaced the Navy ship with a vessel of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources.” (Use of Navy ships has a war-like color to it, so Coast Guard cutters and other vessels, such as the one of the BFAR, are deployed instead.)

He continued: “How was the standoff resolved? America brokered and there was an agreement for all parties to depart the shoal and finish (the standoff). There was this concept of ‘saving face’ by everybody.

“What should we have done there? Engage in hostilities? If we engage in hostilities, can we win? Obviously not. But even in that aspect, are we endangering lives unnecessarily?”

US readies PR program for Duterte

WHILE President Aquino may have been disappointed that the US-brokered agreement did not hold, we see no indications how his successor Duterte views American good offices and avowals of pure intentions.

Meantime, Washington is reportedly preparing events calculated to win the goodwill of incoming President Duterte and convince him that the fate of the Philippines lies nowhere but with its historical ally the US.

One PR extravaganza mentioned is a Duterte state visit soon after the inauguration of a new US president. It is anybody’s guess if all that razzle-dazzle would impress the simple mayor from Davao, but the courtship continues.

The Panatag embarrassment has raised questions on how effective are US moves in moderating Philippine-Chinese disputes, and how firm are American commitments such as those in the 1951 Phl-US Mutual Defense Treaty.

Mr. Aquino’s disclosure of US involvement in the standoff dramatizes how ineffectual could be some diplomatic initiatives of the great US of A now pivoting its military might to the Asia-Pacific area.

• China boasts of ‘cabbage’ capture of Panatag

WAY BACK on June 4, 2013, we reported in Postscript how a Chinese general went around boasting how they did it in Scarborough, and holding up the strategy as a model of their “cabbage” capture of other areas in the South China Sea

One would think Beijing was deliberately shaming Filipinos and their leaders. After President Aquino declared that we would defend “what is ours” to the last man, China responded by sending a swarm of fishing boats escorted by warships.

In a TV interview then, Major Gen. Zhang Zhaozhong said that China’s navy wrapped Panatag like a “cabbage” with their warships, barring Filipino naval ships and fishing boats. He said they secured Panatag by constant surveillance and the posting of fishing vessels and warships.

“If the Philippines wants to go in, in the outermost area, it has first to ask whether our navy will allow it,” he said. “Then it has to ask whether our fishery administration ships and marine surveillance ships will allow it.”

The TV host said: “Let’s look at the big screen that shows the Chinese islands and reefs illegally occupied by the Philippines. What one has stolen has to be returned. What shall we do to counter those rude and barbarian acts of the Philippines?”

Last Thursday, meanwhile, China’s ministries of foreign affairs and national defense announced four “bottom lines” on South China Sea issues. The People’s Daily Online said these are:

1. China will never accept nor recognize the arbitration on the SCS question initiated by the Philippines no matter what kind of ruling the arbitral tribunal at The Hague makes.

2. The US should stop close-in reconnaissance in China’s coastal areas by American military ships and aircraft.

3. South China Sea disputes are not the business of G7 and its members. (The European Council president has said that G7 should make a clear statement on SCS disputes.)

4. Any attempt to undermine China’s sovereign rights through intimidation or other means is doomed to fail.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of May 31, 2016)

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