Not a confusion but a miscalculation seems to be what happened when the Philippines pulled out its ships from Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) without China doing likewise. Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario and the spokesperson of the Department of Foreign Affairs, Raul Hernandez, initially told the press over the weekend when the Philippine ships were pulled out that they expected China to withdraw its ships as well from the disputed territory. But China didn’t reciprocate, and denied that it had ever committed to pull out. Sen. Gregorio Honasan, a former military officer, said the Philippines might have “miscalculated” China. He said the Philippines should have contracted a “third-party mediator” to monitor the withdrawal. “Let’s avoid repeating these mistakes,” he said. “Let’s not be too impulsive in withdrawing [the country’s symbolic resistance] to Chinese incursions.”
Alas, the mistake may prove costly. And considering the earlier Philippine gaffes in staking territorial claims on the Spratlys and elsewhere, as well as the historically inept civil and external defense strategies of the military (the Philippine Navy is a mere virtual navy; the ships in its ridiculously small fleet—ridiculous for an archipelago that has a coastline longer than that of the United States, a naval power—are decrepit), the Bajo blooper is not surprising and is bound to be repeated.
The faux pas is both diplomatic and strategic. Del Rosario told reporters on Friday that China had agreed to withdraw all its vessels from Scarborough Shoal. When it became evident that China wasn’t budging, he said on Saturday that President Aquino had ordered the Philippine ships pulled out because of a coming typhoon. Why the ships were withdrawn because of a typhoon while China was staying put despite it is a question that demands an answer. Typhoons are a dime a dozen in the Philippines; in fact, the Pagasa weather bureau has been notorious for its wrong forecasts and missed bulletins, resulting in immense losses in lives and property. It would appear that because of such a woeful forecasting record, the government had become scared of a typhoon code-named “Butchoy” and would not take chances even if withdrawal would cost the Philippine claim over Bajo de Masinloc and cause national loss of face.
In contrast, China made use of Butchoy to strengthen its position. Instead of pulling out its ships from the area, it sent another vessel, the Nanhaijiu 115, ostensibly to assist 30 Chinese fishing boats in sailing toward shelter amid stormy weather. The deployment brought to eight the number of Chinese government vessels stationed at the shoal.
Malacañang spokesperson Abigail Valte unwittingly disclosed the farcical slip-up. Asked whether the government would send its ships out again should China refuse to pull out its own, she said she had no answer but quoted Del Rosario: “Once [the] weather improves, there will be a reevaluation.” Asked why a reevaluation was needed when bad weather was the reason for ordering the ships home, Valte descended into gibberish, saying there was a need to look into “what sort of presence” was required. Then on to more twaddle: Scarborough is not the only part of the Philippine coastline that needs to be watched, she said. Perhaps the ships will be redeployed to Boracay?
It seems that because of the weakness of the Philippine Navy and military, Malacañang and the DFA have dumped defense and geopolitical considerations in charting diplomatic and strategic initiatives to protect the Philippine claim to Bajo de Masinloc. The oversight is imprudent and runs against recent developments, especially the announcement by US Defense Secretary Leo Panetta of a new military strategy that would see 60 percent of US naval assets moving to the Asia-Pacific region before the end of the decade, and of new assistance for the modernization of the Philippine military.
Not surprisingly, the Department of National Defense has sought to dismiss the withdrawal as a strategic lapse. DND spokesperson Peter Paul Galvez said the pullout would not weaken the Philippines’ sovereign claim over the shoal. There are, he said, many other ways of monitoring the area.
But of course there are other ways of monitoring the shoal. It is, after all, nearer to the Philippines than to China; in fact, China is encroaching on Philippine territory—and Manila has been reduced to the pathetic position of monitoring the incursion from a distance.