Lorenzana bares junked plan to retake Panatag Shoal after 2016 ruling
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana thought of sending the Philippine Navy to drive away Chinese Coast Guard ships on Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) when it seemed apparent that The Hague ruling in 2016 was favorable to the Philippines. But the administration’s soft-landing approach prevented him to do so.
At a forum hosted by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung on Friday, the Defense chief revealed a few details that transpired before the hard-won ruling on the maritime case filed by the Philippines against China.
About a week before the landmark decision, he said US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter called him up to tell him to “exercise restraint” despite the possible favorable decision for the Philippines.
“He said, ‘The ruling will come out soon and we think it’s in your favor… please exercise restraint.’ What do you mean, don’t do anything that will provoke some trouble?” Lorenzana recalled. “I was thinking to myself, what does he mean by that? Do we have the capability to create trouble?”
“But it’s very significant that I was called by the Secretary of Defense of US to restrain our actions. But what I was thinking then, I talked to the Philippine Navy and asked them… I was thinking for Scarborough Shoal maybe we can drive away the Chinese there and recover Scarborough,” he added.
But the plans were dropped when President Rodrigo Duterte told his Cabinet members of the soft-landing approach on the impending verdict to avoid displeasing China.
“When the arbitral ruling was about to be announced, we were all in Malacañang, all Cabinet members. We had this meeting with the President and it was decided let us do a soft-landing. We should not be overly celebrating because we might offend China,” Lorenzana said.
“And so Foreign Affairs Secretary Jun Yasay made the announcement that we won the ruling, and there was a criticism, because he did not appear victorious. He was somber. People thought we should be celebrating, laughing, shouting about the ruling,” he added.
The shoal, located 125 nautical miles from Masinloc, Zambales, was a site of tense standoff in 2012 between the Philippine Navy and the Chinese Coast Guard. This incident prompted the Philippines to take China to international court.
On July 12, 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague invalidated China’s sweeping claims in the South China Sea. It also ruled that Panatag Shoal is a common fishing ground for Filipino, Chinese, and Vietnamese.
Duterte, who came to power on the afternoon of June 30, 2016 or barely two weeks before the hard-won ruling was issued, has refused to use the victory as leverage over China in a bid to get economic investments for the Philippines.
China took control of the shoal after the 2012 standoff but Filipino fishermen were allowed to return to the shoal a few months after Duterte became President. /kga
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