July 17, 2016

PH-China on West Philippine Sea: The issue of trust, or the lack of it

In ThinkingPinoy’s previous article, The South China Sea Decision and Perfecto Yasay's Face, TP briefly explained how the Aquino administration unilateral decision to allow hydrocarbon exploration in the South China Sea’s Reed Bank was used as the primary justification for filing the UNCLOS case.

ThinkingPinoy admits, however, that the explanation was too short to provide a complete picture.

In this article, I will list down how we repeatedly broke our word of honor, suggesting that maybe, just maybe, we may also be at fault. And yes, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo may have committed mistakes during her term. However, just because Gloria botched it doesn't mean PNoy has to follow suit.

As a successor to PGMA, however, PNoy had to make the most of whatever situation we are in.

The question, therefore, is whether he did the right things.

Because you, the Filipino People, deserve to know how things got THIS BAD.

The South China Sea before 2011

In 2002, China and the ASEAN signed the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (DOC) in response to escalating tensions. The DOC essentially indicates:

ASEAN and China shall be respectful of legal evidence of claims and concerns, while seeking solutions that are based on the UNCLOS and international law. Outstanding disputes would be resolved through friendly negotiation both bilaterally and through negotiations with other "concerned parties" [Durham].

The PH-China dispute remained at a relatively comfortable standstill for much of the 2000s.

In 2009, Tensions rose again as it was the UNCLOS deadline for claims on seabed hydrocarbons (READ: Oil and Natural Gas) in the South China Sea [Byrne 2012]. Per UNCLOS, countries who think they own oil and natural gas reserves in the South China Sea have until May 2009 to submit their claims.

China and the Philippines do not really care about those useless rocks in the middle of the sea. Instead, they want the riches that lie below.

In March 2009,
two months before the deadline, the United States reported that China harassed American surveillance vessels in the South China Sea [NYT]. The Americans say their vessels were just there for a routine exploratory mission. This served as the initial justification for American intervention in those waters.

Now, remember that the deadline is May 2009, yet the United States decided to schedule their activities just two months before that.

Hindi naman ba obvious na nananadya? Hindi naman critical ang exploratory mission na ‘yon.

The South China sea feud was largely confined to spicy rhetoric from all sides for the next two years, until...

The MVP enters the ring

Now, here is were things got heated.

On 02 March 2011, two Chinese patrol boats aggressively approached the survey ship MV Veritas Voyager near Reed Bank. The chartered survey ship was supposed to conduct seismic studies in the Sampaguita gas field located inside Reed Bank. The Aquino administration immediately responded by sending patrol aircraft and escort vessels for MV Veritas Voyager [Storey 2011].

MV Veritas Voyager was chartered by UK firm Forum Energy. Philex is the majority owner of Forum Energy [ABS], with Filipino businessman Manny V. Pangilinan (MVP) controlling Philex [Inq]. Additionally, ThinkingPinoy believes it’s important to mention that Mar Roxas is a Philex shareholder [MT].

At this point, the reader will probably want to ask the following question:
MVP isn’t stupid, he understands that the seismic studies will severely strain PH-China ties, so why did MVP take this extreme political and economic risk?

I don't know. Greed?

MVP's has pretty much monopolized every major business in the country, so why not add petrochemicals?

The problem, however, is that the people in our government, PNoy and Foreign Secretary del Rosario, were just as greedy.

To support that claim, ThinkingPinoy will now recount key events that transpired in the several months after the MV Veritas Voyager.

March to June 2011 

The Philippines and China tried to de-escalate the tense situation.

On 08 March 2011, Energy Sec. Jose Rene Almendras said tests would resume after talks in Beijing later in that week [BBC].For a couple of weeks, no news came out, probably because China is still pissed at MVP's March move.

On 23 May 2011, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie and Philippine Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin jointly emphasized maintaining peaceful relations, especially on territorial matters in the South China Sea [VoA]. A day later, President Benigno Aquino (PNoy) said he warned the Chinese defense minister of a possible arms race in the region if tensions worsened over disputes in the South China Sea [Inq].

On 04 June 2011, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said it had filed a protest before the Chinese Embassy “over the increasing presence and activities of Chinese vessels including naval assets in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).” [Inq]

DFA Sec. del Rosario with US State Sec. Clinton in June 2011

On 24 June 2011, The United States announced its readiness modernize the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), during a visit in Washington by Sec. del Rosario [Telegraph].

On June 29 2011, the Department of Energy said 15 new exploration contracts would be offered for mostly offshore prospects off the western island of Palawan. DoE said the blocks would include East Palawan [Inq].

An Issue of Trust

We told China we wanna talk, then we acted like we didn't want to. That's confusing.

In early March, Sec. Almendras said China and the Philippines wanted to talk. The actual talks happened late March, with each country’s defense secretary acknowledging the need for diplomacy. But then, just a day later, here came PNoy warning China of an arms race.

One day we tell them we want to talk, the next day we threatenedd them. Logically, China would be pissed. In response, the Chinese government became more aggressive against Filipino fishermen. To aggravate the issue even further, we even asked the US for military help.

Here lies the problem: the Chinese never tried to drill oil in the South China Sea. It was us – via MVP – who made the first move, thereby disturbing the relative peace that existed in the region.

What’s worse, MVP continued getting richer while he left poor innocent Filipino fishermen to suffer from his error.

Yes, we can argue that the area is ours, but the fact that we said we’re willing to talk implies we should refrain from taking actions that can jeopardize the negotiations. The problem however, is that we actually did jeopardize the talks, so it makes it harder for China to believe our word.

Lumitaw kasi na malabo tayong kausap. Nagkulang tayo sa palabra de honor.

But it gets worse.

July to October 2011

0n 07 July 2011, Sec. del Rosario met with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping and held talks with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi. The two sides "agreed not to let the maritime disputes affect the broader picture of friendship and cooperation of the two countries [CNN]."

A day later Japan’s defense ministry said the US, Japanese and Australian navies will Saturday hold a joint drill in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea)—most of which China claims as its maritime territory [Inq]. Three days later, the US has held joint drills with the Philippines and was planning a similar move with Vietnam, saying the exercises are part of a regular schedule [BBC].

On 19 July 2011, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers said they “discussed in depth the recent developments in the South China Sea and expressed serious concern over the recent incidents,” calling on claimants to exercise “self-restraint” [Inq].

A day later, a group of Philippine politicians, including Rep. Walden Bello, visited a Pagasa Island in the South China Sea, reigniting a row with China. Before the trip, the Chinese embassy in Manila said it served no purpose "but to undermine peace and stability in the region and sabotage the China-Philippines relationship" [BBC].

On July 21 2011, Chinese and ASEAN officials have agreed on a draft of guidelines for the Declaration of Conduct, to avert tension in the South China Sea [21 July 2011].

A week later, Sec. del Rosario said PH would seek ASEAN backing for a plan on pursuing joint development of disputed areas in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) amid China’s increasingly robust assertions of its claims [Inq].

On 31 August 2011, Philippine President Benigno Aquino and Chinese counterpart Hu Jintao signed an agreement targeting $60 billion in trade and investment as the Philippines played down a dispute over the South China Sea [Bloomberg]. A day later, China said it wants an implementing agreement for the Declaration of the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) [Inq].

A couple of weeks later, PNoy said the Philippines secured Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s support for a peaceful resolution of the six-nation dispute over the potentially oil-rich Spratly islands [Inq]. Four days later, MVP’s Philex debuted in the Philippine Stock Exchange [ChinaPost].On 12 October 2011, China and Vietnam signed an agreement to manage a sometimes bitter dispute over the South China Sea. The deal outlines a series of measures, including a hotline to deal with emergencies and a provision for authorities from both countries to meet twice a year [BBC].

On 17 October 2011, the Philippines and the US started war games in Palawan [Inq]. A day later, a Philippine naval gunboat rammed into a Chinese fishing vessel in the disputed waters of the South China Sea. The Philippine ship captured 25 smaller boats that the Chinese ship had been towing [ICFI].

A week later, an influential Chinese newspaper warned neighbors with rival territorial claims to “prepare for the sounds of cannons,” ramping up the pressure over potentially oil-rich waters off China [Inq].

On 27 October 2011, the navies and coast guards of the Philippines and Vietnam forged cooperation agreements despite the continuing disputes among the countries claiming the resource-rich Spratly Islands [Inq].

A Dangerous Pattern

Looking at list of events in the previous section, we can see a pattern forming.

Remember that in March, the Philippines agreed to talk to China, only to issue inflammatory statements (threat of an arms race) shortly afterward.

In early July, del Rosario and his Chinese counterpart agreed to talk again, then the Philippines shortly announces joint drills with US.

In late July, China and ASEAN, which includes the Philippines, declared they want to amicably revisit the Declaration of Conduct, only for del Rosario to tell the rest of ASEAN to hold joint explorations a week later.

In August, China and PH signed a sizeable trade agreement, a clear gesture of goodwill from both sides, only for the Philippines to strike a deal with Japan, China’s enemy, two weeks later.

In October, China and Vietnam signed a de facto peace treaty, showing that it is indeed possible for China to negotiate, then the Philippines reacts by holding war games with the United States, right in the disputed area. The Philippines even had the balls to strike a deal with Vietnam shortly thereafter, apparently to make sure that despite the Vietnam-China treaty, Vietnam’s still on our side.

In the first four occasions (March, early July, late July, and August 2011), it was very clear that China and the Philippines agreed to talk peacefully, then the Philippines undertook actions that clearly undermine those talks.

Ulit-ulit nating sinabi na gusto nating makipag-usap, tapos sisirain naman natin ang usapan. 

Mangangako ka, tapos hindi tugma ang mga galaw mo sa salita mo.

Kung ganoon rin lang, e di dapat, giniyera na natin agad ang Tsina. 

China was patient, it gave us four chances, yet we blew them all up by taking aggressive, hardline courses of action. But still, it appears that China understands our lack of trust, so the October 2011 Vietnam-China treaty showed us that it is indeed possible to successfully strike a peace deal with them.

Then how did we react? We held war games with the United States, China’s greatest rival.

Many Filipinos feel that China is not trustworthy. However, judging from our actions in 2011, ThinkingPinoy sees that it may actually be the Filipinos who cannot be trusted.

Is it still reasonable to insist on the “I cannot trust China” rhetoric, if we ourselves also acted treacherously? 

PNoy and del Rosario are idiots.

One thing's for sure: Repeatedly failing to keep his word of honor is something that ThinkingPinoy can never be proud of. [ThinkingPinoy]

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