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What did Estrada and Arroyo promise China?

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China escalated its already heightened maritime conflict with the Philippines on March 9 by blocking two Philippine vessels from delivering fresh supplies and troops to its marine outpost in the sunken ship Sierra Madre beside the Ayungin Shoal. Two days later, when the Philippines summoned China’s Charge d’Affairs in Manila to protest China’s provocation, Beijing immediately countered that it was the Philippine ships that “infringed China’s territorial sovereignty.”

A week later, on March 17, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei revealed in a press conference in Beijing that two previous Philippine presidents had made an “unequivocal commitment to China” that the Philippines would tow away the Sierra Madre from the Ayungin Shoal. China demanded that Pres. Aquino “heed the promises” made by his predecessors otherwise, Hong Lei warned, the Philippines risks losing its “credibility.”

According to Hong Lei, the promises were made in 1999 by Pres. Joseph “Erap” Estrada and reiterated in 2003 by Pres. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo (GMA). Estrada and Arroyo have yet to respond to this new Chinese allegation. Did they make such commitments to China? If so, why and what did they hope to get in return?

Many observers doubt this new Chinese claim because the Ayungin Shoal did not attain any strategic value to China until after GMA entered into a Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) with China in 2005-2008 allowing China the authority to explore the waters within the 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone boundaries of the Philippines around Palawan.

China’s exploration led to its discovery of the presence of large deposits of oil and natural gas in the area around the Recto Bank which is just 85 nautical miles from Palawan. The Ayungin Shoal is considered the “gateway” to the Recto Bank and China did not express any interest in occupying it until after the JMSU was entered into.

According to a Newsbreak report in 2008 (“Arroyo Gov’t Pleasing China since Day 1”), GMA “clinched the most number of bilateral agreements with China in the two countries’ 30-year relationship.” GMA signed 65 bilateral agreements with China, far surpassing the eight agreements signed by former President Ferdinand Marcos.

Could one of these agreements have included a promise to tow away the Sierra Madre off Ayungin Shoal and turn over all the Spratly Islands  to China?

In a special “Correspondents” documentary, Ricky Carangdang claimed that GMA sold the Spratlys to China. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Gd8MEsT5zfE.

Almost on the same day that China’s spokesman disclosed the Philippine presidential commitments to China, GMA’s former press secretary and spokesman, Rigoberto Tiglao, Jr., launched yet another scathing attack on Pres. Aquino in his column in the Manila Times.

In a previous column, Tiglao had berated Aquino as an “ignoramus” for comparing China’s moves to annex the islands and reefs in the West Philippine Sea to Hitler’s annexation of the Sudetenland in 1938.

In his latest column in the Manila Times (March 16, 2014), Tiglao attacked Pres. Aquino for his “ridiculous, belligerent stand in our dispute with China, represented by his juvenile slogan What’s ours is ours.”

In his column, “A more ‘nuanced’ approach to our China dispute,” Tiglao wrote:In his clumsy effort to rouse our ‘patriotism’ against China, Aquino even declared two years ago, obviously confusing a shoal barely above the sea in an uninhabited area contested by several countries with a heavily populated street in the Republic’s capital: “We will defend Recto Bank as if it were Recto Avenue.”

Nowhere does Tiglao acknowledge that underneath that “shoal barely above the sea in an uninhabited area” lies what the US Energy Information Agency (EIA) estimates to contain approximately 126 billion barrels of oil worth trillions of dollars along with 25.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

Furthermore, contrary to what Tiglao wrote, that shoal is not “contested by several countries”; it is only contested by China – which seeks ownership over the entire 1.4 million square nautical miles of the South China Sea – and the Philippines.

What Tiglao is conflating is the dispute over the entire chain of the Spratly Islands consisting of more than 750 reefs, islets, atolls, cays and islands in the South China Sea. But the Philippines only claims 12 of those islands and reefs and doesn’t dispute Vietnam’s claim to those Spratly Islands within its 200 mile EEZ and neither does Vietnam claim ownership to those within the EEZ of the Philippines. Only China disputes the EEZ boundaries of its Asean neighbors.

Tiglao includes in his column the position paper of the Center for People Empowerment in Governance (CenPeg), which, according to Tiglao, “explains lucidly the flaws in our government’s approach to our dispute with China.”

The CenPeg position paper essentially justifies “Chinese aggressiveness in asserting its claims over the disputed islands” because it “has been provoked by what it sees as an American containment policy towards the rise of China as a major power in the region.”

According to CenPeg, China’s “aggressiveness” will only be enhanced if the Philippines continues its “military alliance with the US such as the expansion of the so-called rotational presence of American troops and their increasingly uninhibited access to Philippine military facilities and resources.”

To appease China, the paper argues that the Philippines should abort its military alliance with the US. Tiglao would undoubtedly charge that only an “ignoramus” would compare this move to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement policy towards Hitler just before WWII.

While the CenPeg paper does not fault the government for its moves to modernize its military capabilities, it “decries (it)… if doing so is the most effective response to the current crisis.”

This is a straw man argument as no one is claiming that modernizing our military capabilities is “the most” effective response to the current crisis with China.

There are other effective responses that must also be undertaken. In his article, Rally to the Flag, written on July 28, 2012, Rafael Alunan III (former Ramos DILG Secretary) described the steps that must be undertaken to respond to the current crisis with China:

“Our preparedness has to be total as well: we need to “harden” our economic defenses by, for example, actively expanding our markets and trade partners; ensure our food and energy security; and industrialize to generate jobs that may be lost abroad. We need to forge unity by settling the civil wars that divide us; that means removing the root causes of our discontents to prevent its exploitation and our division. And we need to build a credible defense shield over the next 10 years, particularly our navy and air force, something we’ve neglected for decades.”

Tiglao and CenPeg support China’s position that the Philippines should reject UN and Asean intervention in arbitrating its dispute with China and instead states: “We believe that opening up bilateral talks with China is worth pursuing. The usual objection to this response is that we will always be on the losing side since we will be negotiating with a far more powerful state.”

That’s true but that’s not actually the “usual objection.” The Philippine government’s objection is that it had “patiently engaged Beijing in bilateral talks over the past 17 years; and at least 50 talks were held between parties since the April 2012 Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal standoff alone.” Department of Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert Del Rosario even went to Beijing to have “bilateral talks” with China’s then Vice President, now President, Xi JinPing, about their Spratly Islands dispute.

Bilateral negotiations have always failed, according to the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs, because “China insists on claiming indisputable sovereignty over nearly all of the South China Sea through its nine-dash-line claim.”

How can you negotiate with China when it insists at the very outset of negotiations that its sovereignty over the entire South China Sea is “indisputable”? What is there left to dispute? What is there left to negotiate…the times of the week when Filipino fishermen will be allowed to fish in China’s waters?

China is not the party to talk about sticking to commitments and losing credibility if one fails to do so. China should recall that in June of 2012, it made a commitment to withdraw its ships from the Scarborough Shoal if the Philippine Navy withdrew its ships as well, in a deal brokered by the US. When the Philippine ships left, China’s ships remained as China said it had never agreed in writing to leave.

The Filipino people must reject whatever commitments were made by Estrada and GMA to China.

(Send comments to Rodel50@gmail.com or mail them to the Law Offices of Rodel Rodis at 2429 Ocean Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94127 or call 415.334.7800).

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