Page 1 of 3 America's Scarborough Shoal dolchstoss
By Peter Lee
Whoever is rolling out the new US maritime strategy for East Asia apparently regards the Financial Times as his or her chosen instrument. The FT, for its part, appears to believe that it completes its journalistic mission by reporting the US position, and sees no need to examine the US claims in detail, a shortcoming I intend to remedy in this piece.
In recent days two backgrounded FT articles have expressed US frustration with Chinese salami-slicing and cabbage wrapping in
the South China Sea. From the first piece, Pentagon plans new tactics to deter China in South China Sea:
In recent months, the US has come to two broad conclusions about its approach to the South China Sea. The first is that its efforts at deterrence are having only limited impact. Despite considerable US attention and rhetoric since 2010, China has slowly continued to shift the status quo in ways that are rattling both many of its neighbours and the US.
The second is that US military strategy in the region has to some extent been asking the wrong question. For several years, some of the Pentagon's best minds have been focused on how the US would win a protracted war with China and have come up with a new concept - known as AirSea Battle - to ensure continued access of US aircraft and ships to contested areas during a conflict.
However, the reality is that Washington is facing a very different military challenge, a creeping assertion of control by the Chinese that often involves civilian rather than naval vessels - the sort of grey area that would not normally warrant any response from the US.
The solution doesn't appear particularly impressive on the surface: basically naming and shaming through increased and closer US surveillance.
More important, perhaps, is the thrust of the second article: an effort to paint the PRC as the guys who cheated at the game, rather than outplayed the United States. That is important because the United States has taken another step in shedding its threadbare "honest broker" costume, and is adopting a more overtly confrontational posture in backing the PRC's overmatched local adversaries and imposing the US strategic and tactical agenda on the region.
And that, it appears, requires getting rewrite on the phone for some creative history.
The event in question is the scuffle over the Scarborough Shoal in 2012. In an attempt to assert Philippine sovereignty, Manila apprehended some Chinese fishermen poaching protected shellfish in the shoal and made a point of broadcasting pictures of them with their ill-gotten conch. Two Chinese maritime patrol vessels appeared, and the Philippines withdrew without detaining the fisherman.
The Chinese ships stuck around and were joined by fishing vessels.
Now, according to second the FT backgrounder, US strategists face a dilemma over Beijing's claim in the South China Sea:
With typhoon season fast approaching, the US tried to broker a resolution. By the end of the meeting between Kurt Campbell, then the top US diplomat for Asia, and Fu Ying, China's vice foreign minister for Asia, the US side believed they had an agreement for both sides to withdraw. The following week, the Philippines ships left the Scarborough Shoal and returned home. The Chinese, however, stayed in the area.
The Scarborough Shoal case played a big role in another part of the new approach by the US and its allies: the appeal to the courts. Albert del Rosario told the FT that it was the "catalyst" for Manila's decision to bring China to an international court over its expansive claims in the South China Sea.
Even though there is still considerable resentment over the way events in Scarborough Shoal unfolded, the Obama administration has shown no willingness to reopen the issue and push for a Chinese withdrawal.
Speaking last month at a conference in Singapore, Ms Fu denied there had been any deal between her and US diplomats in 2012. "I do not know what agreement you are referring to," she said. The Chinese vessels did not leave the area because they feared the Philippines might double-cross them.
"All China is doing is to keep an eye on the island for fear that the Philippines would do it again," said Ms Fu.
US officials tell a different story, insisting there was a clear understanding at the 2012 meeting that the Chinese would take the idea of a mutual withdrawal from Scarborough Shoal back to senior leaders in Beijing.
They say it is unclear whether Ms Fu really tried to sell the agreement in Beijing or whether the foreign ministry was overruled by more hawkish elements in the Chinese system, including the military.
This is pretty weak beer.
And I will add my considered opinion that any scenario based on the PRC agreeing to US mediation in its dealings with the Philippines is, for lack of a nicer word, horsepucky.
The PRC's detestation of internationalization of its one-sided scrum with the Philippines is a byword in Chinese diplomacy. Maybe as a courtesy, Fu agreed to transmit the US proposal back to Beijing; most likely, the leadership's decision would have been to reject any US involvement in the matter. Indeed, as shown below, the record in the Philippine media supports this interpretation.
What was really going on in June 2012 seems not to have been the rape of Kurt Campbell's injured innocence by the dastardly Chinese; more likely it was a carnival of collusion, incompetence, and bad faith, with Philippine Foreign Minister Alberto Del Rosario at its center.
Negotiations with the Chinese were not in the hands of Campbell or, for that matter, Del Rosario.
President Aquino had despaired of achieving diplomatic engagement with the PRC over the Scarborough Shoal issue through Del Rosario - a China-bashing fire eater - and had instead opened a back channel to the PRC through an senator, Antonio Trillanes IV. (Del Rosario apparently retaliated by dispatching an ex-business associate of his to Beijing to represent himself as Del Rosario's own informal envoy and further muddy the waters.)
Trillanes was not just engaged in occasional chit-chat. He apparently was the recognized conduit for behind the scenes engagement between the Philippines and the PRC, claiming to have met with the PRC Ministry of Foreign Affairs 16 times concerning the Scarborough matter between May and July 2012. Presumably, he met more than once with Fu Ying who, in addition to acting as Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs for Asia, had previously served as ambassador to the Philippines and was entrusted with presenting the smiling PRC face to the Philipines.
Trillanes clearly detests Rosario - he characterized Del Rosario as a "traitor" - and Del Rosario certainly returned the favor.
In an attempt to discredit Trillanes and his channel, the speaker of the Philippine Senate, Juan Ponce Enrile flayed Trillanes' efforts when they came to light in September 2012.
Excercising the government's prerogative of leaking classified information when political necessity demands, Enrile introduced some confidential notes from the Philippine ambassador to the PRC, whom Trillanes briefed on his talks, and added his own vituperative remarks in order to provide the most unfavorable gloss on Trillanes' actions.
The notes are not particularly damning to Trillanes, and they do characterize the nature of Campbell's contacts with Fu rather persuasively:
"There was never any negotiation between the Chinese and the Americans, just a meeting with Kurt Campbell. Mr Campbell was not a negotiator. Besides, Secretary del Rosario was not there."
Rather unambiguously albeit awkwardly, President Aquino credited Trillanes with negotiating the mutual climbdown ... and in September 2012, far from repudiating Trillanes, confirmed that the senator was still his informal envoy:
Aquino was asked about the Palace statement that Trillanes achieved "minor successes" in his role as backdoor negotiator.
The President said Trillanes' work helped reduce the number of Chinese vessels in Scarborough Shoal, deescalating the tension. Aquino was however unsure about the exact number.
"Yon naman siguro pwede nating i-credit doon sa efforts rin at efforts ni Senator Trillanes at iba pang efforts ano." (This we can credit to the efforts of Senator Trillanes and other efforts.)
Aquino admitted that he felt uneasy discussing Trillanes' work in detail because the talks were informal in nature.
"'Pag informal nito, hindi pwedeng sabihin publicly sa China. Meron silang considerations sa pag-a-address nung kanilang constituencies. So hindi ko pwedeng ibigay sa inyo lahat ng detalye pero mukhang napakaliwanag na humupa naman nang maski papaano 'yung tension diyan at nakatulong si Senator Trillanes." (When it's informal, it means we can't discuss it publicly with China. They have considerations in addressing their constituencies. So we can't give you all the details but it looks like it's very clear that the tension was reduced and Senator Trillanes helped.)