Aquino's softened tone on Scarborough

MANILA, Philippines – When he delivers his 3rd State of the Nation Address on Monday, July 23, President Benigno Aquino III is expected to mention the Scarborough Shoal dispute, which has kept the government busy for over a quarter this year.

How has Aquino dealt with this issue so far?

Rappler reviewed his statements for the past 4 months, depicting a hands-on President who has recently softened his tone, in an effort to “bend over backwards” for China.

Aquino has made one thing clear since the tension began, after the Philippine Navy apprehended 8 Chinese fishing boats in the disputed Scarborough Shoal on April 8. “What's important is to protect our sovereignty. We cannot just give it away. And we have no one to rely on, of course, but ourselves,” he said on April 11, when the government revealed the problem to the media.

He added the Philippines is “really after a resolution on the diplomatic level.”

Leading gov't efforts

Unlike Chinese President Hu Jintao who has kept himself away from the issue, Aquino himself has led government efforts to end the dispute. And he has made his presence felt.

Two days after the Philippine Navy monitored the Chinese fishing boats, Aquino met with Armed Forces and Coast Guard officials to lay out the rules of engagement in Scarborough Shoal. He said he wanted to deter the “eruption of violence.”

When Filipino protesters planned to sail to Scarborough Shoal on May 18, Aquino's phone call stopped them from doing so. “He said that he believes the postponement of this activity may do better for the resolution of this dispute,” said the group's leader, former Philippine Marine officer Nicanor Faeldon.

AQUINO'S CALL. President Benigno Aquino III is the reason why protesters led by former Marine officer Nicanor Faeldon (in photo) did not sail to Scarborough .

Screen grab from ANC

It was also Aquino's decision to pull out the Philippines' ships from Scarborough Shoal on June 15. The President said this was due to bad weather, but for observers, it was a move to deescalate tension in the area. He would still decide whether to put back the Philippines' ships after the government discovered China never pulled out theirs, despite a supposed commitment.

To counter statements from the Philippine chief executive, China, on the other hand, uses its Foreign Ministry.

Int'l attention

Maximizing his stature as Philippine leader, Aquino initially called for international support in the Philippine-China dispute. He went to the extent of warning the Philippines' neighbors about China, rejecting China's call not to bring the dispute to international attention.

China prefers bilateral negotiations, or one-on-one talks, with other claimant countries in the South China Sea. Its critics, however, say bilateral talks with China would always be lopsided, especially if Beijing uses its economic might against the Philippines.

HITTING TRADE? China months ago blocked the entry of Philippine bananas, a move that observers saw as a 'sanction' amid the Scarborough Shoal standoff.

File photo from AFP

In an interview with reporters on April 23, to China's dismay, Aquino warned the region that China's territorial claims covered a huge area and were getting “closer and closer” to the Philippines.

"They claim this entire body of water practically. Look at what is excluded and what they are claiming,” Aquino said, pointing to a map of the South China Sea. “So how can the others not be fearful of what is transpiring?"

He said international attention is the Philippines' “best weapon” in the Scarborough Shoal dispute, given China's consistent rejection of bringing the issue before an international court.

Softer tone

He changed his tone, however, after China reportedly pulled out its vessels from Scarborough Shoal after a "mutual agreement" – what he called an act of “goodwill.” 

On June 6, Aquino noted both countries have “demonstrated goodwill to each other already,” and suggested “perhaps we can, for the meantime, not drum up international support for our cause at this point in time, just to provide the best environment for a solution to the entire issue."

This was a few days before Aquino met with US President Barack Obama, who pledged on June 9 to uphold freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. (Watch more in the video below.)

In an interview with ABS-CBN aired last week, Aquino said the Philippines has, in fact, been trying to adjust to China.

“We have tried to be as reasonable as possible. In fact, we've been bending over backwards, we try to look at it from their perspective, and we try to see, hopefully, that they look at it from our perspective and really achieve some reasonableness in terms of the actions of both parties,” Aquino said.

Gag order

Nevertheless, Aquino recently issued a statement on possible US involvement in the dispute – something that China fears. In an exclusive interview with Reuters, Aquino said the Philippines could request spy planes from the United States to monitor Scarborough Shoal.

The Palace later downplayed the statement and likened a spy plane to Google Earth.

SPY PLANES. President Benigno Aquino III says the Philippines could request P3C Orion spy planes, which carry armaments, from the US.

Photo from the US Navy

On July 6, the Palace issued a gag order on a recent Cabinet meeting on dealing with the Scarborough Shoal dispute. “There was a decision made and the decision cannot be disclosed. As to what actions they are, we cannot, I cannot disclose under pain of imprisonment,” said Presidential Spokesperson Edwin Lacierda.

On Tuesday, July 17, Aquino inaugurated the P6.1-B Angat aqueduct improvement project, which benefited from a $116-M loan from China.

Nagpapasalamat po tayo sa pondong ipinagkaloob ng bansang Tsina upang maisakatuparan ang mahalagang proyektong ito. Tunay nga pong sa maigting na ugnayan ng magkakaratig-bayan, mas mabilis nating natutugunan ang mga problema at mas napaglilingkuran ang ating mamamayan,” Aquino said.

(We would like to thank China for funding this important project. This is proof that strong relationship between neighbors allows us to quickly address problems and serve our citizens.)

THANKING CHINA. President Benigno Aquino III shows gratitude to China, through Ambassador Ma Keqing, for a $116-M loan that helped the government build a P6.1-B aqueduct improvement project.

Photo from Malacau00f1ang/PCOO

The President, in his statements, is trying to perform a balancing act: to protect his country's sovereignty without alienating a mighty economy. – Rappler.com

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Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II, news editor of Rappler, specializes in covering religion and foreign affairs. He obtained his MA Journalism degree from Ateneo and later finished MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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