Government News Analysis

What lay beneath

China CG 2

On Thursday, former Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo hit out at the man who replaced her, the last president, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino, for encouraging China’s adventures in the South China Sea – more specifically, its comprehensive building programme that’s turned part of the Philippines’ sea territory into Mainland island fortresses.

And she’s right, Aquino’s shelving of diplomacy in favour of political grandstanding did just that. His public humiliation of China left Beijing little option but to throw its islands construction into high gear. But that’s only part of the story. This wasn’t all Aquino’s own work; he had plenty of help and bags of encouragement.

To many, the affected islands may have seemed a simple territorial dispute between the two countries with Aquino attempting to enforce the Philippines’ claim. But like the tops of those tiny islands that are visible on the surface, there was far more going on out of sight below.

And so, enter US president of the day, Barack Obama, who saw a potential in this wrangle that could have far-reaching benefits for his country and his legacy.

Very early in the piece, Obama cultivated a role for Washington in this dispute; publically he offered US services to both parties as an honest broker; privately he convinced Aquino that standing up to China was the right course and that America would support him every step of the way.

But, to use a North of England idiom, Obama was ‘all mouth and trousers’ – he talked about American might, the US standing side-by-side with its Philippine brother, protecting the archipelago against China’s maritime encroachment, containing Chinese hegemony in the South China Sea; yet – as it turned out – he delivered absolutely nothing apart from empty words.

What he did do, though, was to sucker a very naïve Aquino into believing all that; that Washington, the Pentagon and the United States Navy had Manila’s back – allowing Obama to use the Philippines as an unwitting pawn on the chessboard of East Asia, a region for which he had his own very definite plans.

This was the region where he wanted to establish the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) – at the time, a 12-nation, US-led trade bloc seeking to secure US dominance in world trade by restricting Chinese commerce. China was excluded from joining the TPP. For it to work though, Chinese influence in that region needed to be seriously undermined. Obama, therefore, needed an issue and a willing partner in that part of the world to bring things to a head.

And so naturally he turned to the Philippines – the junior partner in the 70-year old US-Philippines “special relationship” – and to his political soul-mate, Aquino. Manila had always done Washington’s bidding in the past so why not now?

Talk about taking candy from a baby, this turned out to be even easier. Aquino – lauded for economic gains that had boosted his country’s image abroad – was being given the opportunity to emerge as an international statesman; a serious player on the world stage. He was flattered; he was being handed a key role by his ‘friend’ Obama in a high-stakes game of geopolitics. If he pulled it off his footnote in history would be assured. And all he had to do was fire the bullet. The US would take care of the rest.

On 8 April 2012, Aquino started fashioning that bullet when the Philippine Navy apprehended eight small Chinese fishing boats in the waters off Scarborough Shoal, a cluster of rocky outcrops claimed by the Philippines, China and Taiwan. An inspection of the boats reveled corals, giant clams and live sharks. In terms of marine plunder it was a fairly small deal – but it was enough to start the ball rolling and escalate it to the level of a major international incident. It turned out to be just what Obama needed.

China responded quickly, imposing strict regulations on Philippine banana imports after rejecting and then destroying a 35-ton consignment that had failed quarantine tests; shipments of Philippine bananas from 27 exporters were suspended in a ban that was finally lifted last October. Inspection procedures for other fruit coming from the Philippines were also stepped up. Meanwhile, the China National Tourism Administration and its subordinate agency, China Travel Service, suspended tours to the Philippines. This resulted in some 9% of tourist arrivals – the Mainland component – switching to Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam.

The war of words between the two governments heated up further while mass street demos gathered in Manila. As the Chinese flag was burned in the Philippine capital, Aquino publically distanced himself from the protests, saying that the government had no hand in them – that they were organise by private groups – while his deputy presidential spokesman, Abigail Valte, stated that the people were expressing their freedom of expression enshrined in the Constitution.

And then Obama, who’d publically stood on the sidelines and watched the small spark kindle to a flame and watched the flame build into a conflagration, stepped forward offered to mediate – surely knowing that a US presence in this situation would only inflame things further. Predictably, Beijing rejected the offer saying that it would hold direct talks with Manila but non-regional interests – meaning the US – should not be involved.

Aquino, though, shunned all efforts to pursue a bilateral dialogue with China – that would not have been in the US interest. Instead, to Washington’s quiet applause, he upped the ante and in 2013 filed a case with the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration asking it to enforce the Philippines’ claim to Scarborough Shoal. And over the next two years his rhetoric became evermore confrontational; evermore bellicose – after all, Obama has his back. Or so he believed.

Meanwhile, Beijing constructed a barrier at the entrance to the shoal – something that had never happened before; Chinese Marine Surveillance vessels and 130-ton Chinese Coast Guard patrol boats (photo), complete with 14.55mm machine guns, appeared more frequently there. China’s theoretical claim had turned into an occupation which left the Philippine Navy powerless.

And so by 2014, Obama – who’d supported and encouraged Aquino’s handling of the situation – saw a golden opportunity to further the progress of the TPP and implement his East Asian foreign policy – his famous “Pivot to East Asia” which had been in the works, coincidentally, from shortly before the time of the Scarborough Shoal incident.

The actual purpose of the ‘pivot’ – leaving aside much of the US sales blurb of strengthening bilateral relations, deepening working relationships with emerging powers, engaging with multilateral institutions, expanding trade and investment – was the containment of China. In its own words, “forging a broad-based military presence; and advancing democracy and human rights”. It was by any other name, the US China Containment Policy.

And so, once again Obama turned to Aquino; and once again played him like a fiddle. Given China’s build-up in the South China Sea, it was easy for the US president to convince the Philippine president that he needed more US muscle behind him. And so, when Obama proposed an enhancement of defence cooperation – essentially, expanding the US military presence in the Philippines – Aquino went for it hook, line and sinker.

Thus, on 28 April 2014, both sides signed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA), giving US forces a 10-year lease of five Philippine military bases. Sold to “promote peace and security in the region,” Obama had got exactly what he wanted from Aquino. And, in turn, Aquino thought he’s got what he needed from the US – what in fact Obama had told him he needed.

But nothing changed. Even after the Philippines was inevitably awarded sovereignty over Scarborough Shoal by the arbitration court last July – the case was another worthless exercise in saber-rattling by Aquino; again encouraged by Obama – Chinese activity around the shoal has continued apace.

The Hague court had no way of enforcing its ruling; that was always understood – that was sort of supposed to be why the US Navy had increased its fleet presence in the area in the first place. At least that’s what everyone was led to believe. But for all its boasting (actually, Obama’s bluffing) of keeping China in line – and of protecting Philippine interests in the South China Sea –  the EDCA has had zero effect.

And of course, since then there’s been a changing of the guard in Washington. Obama’s term is finished and the new tenant of the White House, US President Donald Trump, has a very different view of the TPP which necessitated the pivot to East Asia. One of the first things that Trump did after assuming office was to withdraw the US from the trade bloc. Who actually leads it now seems unclear, but without the US it’s virtually in tatters.

Similarly, there’s been an administrative handover in Manila with President Rodrigo Duterte taking over the reins. And his view of China is the polar opposite of Aquino’s. This is the Philippines’ biggest and most powerful neighbour and a huge potential markets for its goods. Unlike Aquino Duterte wasn’t about to cut off his nose to spite his face. And so he embraced China as a partner – and in a handful of months was able to help forge the strongest bilateral relationship these two nations have ever embarked on. And from the Philippine point of view, the most lucrative. Today, China’s buying more Philippine bananas than it ever has.

So, roughly four years of bitter relations with China with detrimental consequences for the Philippine economy. And nothing to show for it other than a moment in the sun for Aquino as he took to the stage in the guise of a national hero – the usual Philippine political melodrama and fantasy of the valiant and virtuous David standing strong against the brutish bullying Goliath – and a momentary pyrrhic victory for Obama before his legacy foreign and trade policy was sunk without trace somewhere in the dark depths of the Philippine Sea.

That’s politics – a game of power and manipulation where what’s on the surface rarely reveals what lies below, which invariably is a twisted root system of self-serving goals, bureaucratic machinations, shallow talk, obfuscation of the facts, deceitful representations, posturing and hidden motives.

53 Comments

  • It’s now VERY CLEAR that there are only YELLOWTARDEDS and the rest OTHERS.
    ex-PGMA’s pronouncements are but mirror image of mahal na pangulong digung foreign policy and attitude towards China, an independent foreign policy base on dependency with China.

    China’s build up, economically and militarily, is not any Philippine’s president fault. China is the only one who has a ridiculous INDISPUTABLE SOVEREIGNTY CLAIM OVER THE WHOLE OF SOUTH CHINA SEA. And China possesses NUCLEAR WEAPONS AND TRUE DEEP BLUE OCEAN NAVY with an economy to sustain indefinite war. So how could that BE ANY STUPID PHILIPPINE PRESIDENT’S FAULT?

    • A sane man does not dare a foe much stronger and capable than he is into a fight. He should use tact and diplomacy to stop agressive behavior. He should not let other outsiders to goad him to do things in favor of supposed to be allies but imperil his own intersts.

    • All talk does not help a friend, real friends don’t goad you to do pick fights then left you hanging. Hot words just make bad situations worst. And what real help did they do when China turned agressive words into actions? None, except to chit-chat more even if they know the Philippines was helpless against China’s actions. No matter what others may say, President Duterte’s approach is much more beneficial to the country.

    • Ur right sir Leopoldo Pascua. I do agree with you. They are only good in talking. Look what happen now. Is it the president of the US praising again the Chinese leader? So what Prrd is doing, i think is the best for our country.

    • Yan ang tama na post! Yong mga ungas na pinipitik c PresRRD na kunyari magaling at matapang at ino-odyokan c PresRRD na mag react, ay gusto lang sumikat sa internet/netizen world! Matalino ang ating PresRRD at magaling dumiskarte, pabayaan lang natin cya. Ang USA nga na powerful nag aalangan sa China, tayo pa kaya?…

  • noynoy based his moves and judgment on his daily experiences with his computer games…..what he forgot is that the issue re the disputed islands is that you cant just start all over again or there is no such thing as multiple lives..worse he might have asked for the participation of his favourite nephew in this “computer game” ha ha ha ha

  • Thanks, Volatilian. I like the way you depicted abnoy, that boy-man posturing like a grow-up man in public but bereft of tact, sensibility, empathy, wisdom and open-mindedness.

  • Fantastically explained, Volatilian. Digong has no other alternative but to use Chinas wealth to make our nation first world in order to assert our rights in this world of economic dominance.

  • That is the result of the stupid action, political grandstanding and ineffective leadership of the ever incompetent and brain-dead former President (Ab)Noynoy Aquino. Thank God, his term is over, and for saving the Philippines from further going down into constitutional and political quagmire; nonetheless an embarrassment.

    • Mary Jane Luste Patilano if Duterte is brain dead, you think the King of Saudi Arabia would even entertain him? You think he would have managed to bring home our countrymen with the full cooperation of the Saudi govt? You call the President of the Phil names, what if an ordinary citizen like you will be called a brain fart would you like that?

    • Mary Jane Lustre, you sound like Agot Isidro..hehehehe..Ano kayo doktor? If not, kayo ang may diperensya sa utak..Nagdiagnosed kayo ng tao kahit hindi naman kayo doktor..hahahahaha

    • Mary Jane Luste Patilano hahahahaha angkon pa more!!! HEY, EVEN IF GMA IS CORRUPT, SHE WAS THE ONE WHO PROVIDE THE FUNDAMENTALS FOR THE GOOD MACROECONOMIC CONDITIONS OF THE PHILS, TOGETHER WITH AMANDO TETANGCO! PUTANG INA MO

    • Ayw kc matanggap ni mam mary jane luste patilano na wla ng bisa ang kamandag ng mga magnanakaw at sinungaling na admin ni Pnoy. Kc marami ng nagsasabi na isa itong bulaang propeta nakikinig pa rin sila. Sa labas c Pnoy ay parang isdang pirit. Makintab at sariwa kung titingnan mo. Sa loob nito, hahaha, pwede mo nang itapon kc isang buwan na itong nilagyan ng formalin.

  • Pare parehas lang naman kayongga nakaraan na presidente. May mga iniwang multo pagkatapos ng termino. Hindi kayo totoong serbisyo publiko. Pinataba niyo lang ngbhusto mga bulsa niyo.

  • alejo and other grandstanding critics on south china sea ‘squabble’ must make an ‘in=depth’ study first before opening their ‘mouth’ on the south china sea issues… who is really the culprit and whyn such it happened….

    • They will not do it sir Rene Natividad because they might come to conclusion that their patrons are the real culprit and author of this WPS trouble. At kasali ang kasangga ni alejano na si trillanes. Kya hindi umubra bibig niya kc hindi gumanit ng safeguard. Kumbaga wlang konsiyensya.

  • Cnu ang tunay na nagkamali sa Phil. Sea at yung arbitration pang takip sa kasalanan mga bugok niloloko nyo ang sambayanan Pilipino Golez et al asan tapang nyo ngaun ang tatapang nyo lalo ito Magdalo bakit tigre ba ngaun ang nasa unahan nyo kaya tumapang kayo na datiy puro lampa humihiram kayo ng tapang sa ama ng bansa ngaun they can never put this man down wag nyo unahan putok lang ng boy scout yan hindi pa yan canyon

  • Why blame the Philippine government instead of the Chinese land grabbers. We blame ourselves for the fault of our enemies. SAF 44 killed ny Moslems and we blame our government.

  • … PNoy encouraging China to build structures at some islands within the econmic zone of the Philippines and at rhe same time asking help from the US / UNCLOS… ano ito???? what is going on?… sino ang gustong paguluhin ang pangyayari?… sino ang nag umpisa magsulsol kanino?… bakit walang response kahit katiting from PNoy samantalang sya ang tinuturo ni Trillanes na nag utos sa kanya na pumunta ng China 16 times… kahit saang anggulo, may kinalaman ang dating administrasyon dito.

    • Eileen, ito ang maliwanag: malalim na analisis, USA ang nag utos kay Pinoy para gumawa ng diskarte. Palibhasa walang alam, sunod sunoran lang cya sa mga utos ng USA. inutosan nya c Trillianes na mag negotiate sa China secretly pero plano ng USA. pag nagka gulo na, magkakapera na ang USA sa kanilang war materials at yong mga tagong yaman ni YAMASHITA sa Philipines mahahakot na nila. Ginagamit lang tayo ng USA… malas lang ng USA at c PresRRD ang naging Pres. Kasi kung c Roxas pa, maglalá lalo ang DRUGS plus yong plano nila sa China, masusunod! Di kaya ng USA ang China in terms of manpower. Sa war armaments, di rin nila mabasta basta ang China. Ang USA kasi ay instigator ng war. Afgahnistan, middle east, etc, sila ang nag instigate para magka gulo! Iyan ang negosyo nila in the guise of DEMOCRACY & FREEDOM kuno…ganyan ka salbahis ang America-USA!

  • A very enlightenment piece of write up on how China penetrated the Philippine sea. This is a must read to those mislead by the real circumstances behind it, It is a big thanks for Duterte winning the Presidency who in one way or the other has the knowledge in dealing this kind of situation created by Aquino..

    • Yan ang tama Albert. Tapos sisisihin ang nanunungkulan sa pamahalaan ngayon kung bakit hinayaan nila. Magpapalabas ng babala, we will do all what we can to help you. Tayo din Pinoy, naniwala agad.

  • In-house political analysts of most mainstream media won’t buy this piece. Not only because they kowtow to extreme liberalism but because their heads maybe full of hot air instead. We need true patriots in media. Thanks Volatilian.