Today, occupation of Scarborough Shoal symbolizes the PRC threat in the South China Sea. As the PRC faces imminent repudiation of its Nine Dash Line claim inside the Philippine EEZ under the UNCLOS arbitration panel, there have been a blizzard of reports in the western press that the PRC intends to extend its infamous island-building program to the shoal, located less than 150 nautical miles from the main Philippine island of Luzon.


In an op-ed in the Financial Times, Senator John McCain proposed a US carrier group patrol the area near the Scarborough Shoal “in a visible display of US combat power.” Sean Liedman, at the Council on Foreign Relations, suggested that the United States covertly sabotage the PRC dredging equipment if and when it showed up at the shoal.

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 Minister of Foreign Affairs, Alberto Del Rosario had to step up to sabotage the talks.

Indeed, PRC permanent occupation of the shoal was a consequence, not a cause, of Philippine internationalization of the dispute.

Diplomatic ruse?

The story put out in the West—specifically through a backgrounder provided to the Financial Times in 2014—was that Kurt Campbell, US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, had negotiated a deal with PRC Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying in a Virginia motel room for simultaneous withdrawal of PRC and Philippine vessels from the contested shoal. The naïve Philippines left, the nasty PRC stayed, and Chinese perfidy dictated that the Philippines file its arbitration case with UNCLOS.

Scarborough Shoal
Scarborough Shoal

As I discussed at the time, this story was highly suspect.

The PRC was committed to excluding the United States from its bilateral discussions with its overmatched South China Sea neighbors, so the idea that it would undercut this strategy and, for that matter, cut a deal with the US without the Philippines even being in the room was absurd.

Bear in mind, also, that the US had repudiated the “G2” proposition that the PRC and US superpowers would settle the affairs of the little guys in Asia between them, and so Kurt Campbell cutting a backroom deal with Fu Ying was contrary to US policy as well.

Beyond the fundamental illogic of this story, there were also ample indications in the Philippine press that it was wrong.

President Aquino, in fact, was involved at the time in intensive bilateral negotiations with the PRC through Antonio Trillanes IV, a flamboyant Philippine senator seen as a close ally of Aquino. Trillanes had 16 meetings in Manila and Beijing (as opposed to Campbell’s single confab in the Virginia motel) including meetings with Fu Ying. Trillanes believed he had successfully hammered out an agreement by which the PRC and the Philippines would conduct a sequential — not simultaneous — withdrawal from the shoal.

The US and the Philippines have held joint military exercises in Philippines waters near Scarborough Shoal.
The US and the Philippines have held joint military exercises in Philippines waters near Scarborough Shoal.

These details came out in late 2012 in an acrimonious session in the Philippine Senate, during which the Senate speaker, 92-year old Juan Ponce Enrile, entered into the record his embroidered account of the confidential notes provided by the Philippine ambassador to China, Sonja Brady, in an effort to discredit Trillanes, largely by quoting statements by Trillanes indicating his dismissive, unpatriotic attitude toward the importance of Scarborough Shoal and his unseemly contempt for Del Rosario.

However, at the same time the notes confirm the seriousness and progress of Trillanes’ negotiations on behalf of Aquino. The only issue is how his deal for a sequential withdrawal fell apart.

Trillanes subsequently provided a four page “Aide Memoire” describing the 2012 fiasco to Rigoberto Tiglao, a Manila Star columnist. It apparently makes for interesting reading.

Tiglao quoted an excerpt from the Aide Memoir on his website and concluded:

I believe him when he made one of his particular allegations: that Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario deliberately caused the aggravation of our territorial disputes with China in 2012.

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.”

As quoted in a series of columns by Tiglao, the Aide Memoire paints a pretty clear picture of Del Rosario screwing up the withdrawal, apparently based on whatever he was cooking up with Kurt Campbell, with some emphasis added:

“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.”)

When are you going to Scarborough Shoal?

Just to make it clear what happened: Trillanes is negotiating a sequential withdrawal as Aquino’s representative. Del Rosario, who is not conducting the negotiations, gets a phone call from the US (apparently in the middle of the night from US Ambassador to the Philippines Harry Thomas), orders a unilateral withdrawal without telling his own president, and accuses the PRC of violating an agreement for a simultaneous withdrawal.

Despite Del Rosario’s determined efforts at sabotage, by Trillanes’ account, the sequential withdrawal agreement was still alive in early July. The final deliverable would be the Philippines not internationalizing the dispute by declining to raise it at the ASEAN Regional Forum in Cambodia, at which time the PRC would withdraw its last three ships.

According to Trillanes’ Aide Memoir the Aquino cabinet rejected this option and voted overwhelmingly to internationalize the dispute at ASEAN, even after briefings on the dire impact a PRC-Philippine breach might have on the Philippine economy.

China once was a true love of mine …

Del Rosario made sure to burn any bridges to China at the meeting by whipping out a Hitler analogy to criticize ASEAN’s unwillingness to take a joint stand against the PRC. The leaked notes of the ASEAN deliberations found their way to Carleton Thayer and were reported in Japan Focus:

Finally, Del Rosario concluded his remarks by quoting from the German anti-Nazi theologian, Martin Neimöller:

First they came for the communists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me, and there was no one left to speak out for me.

With the Philippine decision to publicly internationalize the dispute, according to Trillanes’ account, the PRC would not vacate Scarborough Shoal.

So Del Rosario had successfully sabotage the bilateral, sidelined ASEAN, and whittled down the Philippines’ options to arbitration or nothing.

Trillanes seems to have regarded the internationalization gambit is the work of his arch-nemesis, Alberto Del Rosario.

US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affaiars Kurt Campbell
US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell

Remember me to one who lives there …

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 … 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 Philippines 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 to 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.

The question is what did Kurt Campbell know and when did he know it.  I’m guessing: quite a bit.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

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