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How the Philippines Lost Panatag Shoal Without a Single Shot Being Fired

hat is white-on-white, gray-on-gray, and yellow all over? To find the answer let us go back to Tuesday, the 10th of April 2012.Panatag Shoal (aka Scarborough Shoal, Bajo de Masinloc, Huangyan Island) lies just 124 nautical miles west of Zambales and well within the Philippines' 200-mile EEZ The Philippine Navy’s newly acquired frigate, BRP Gregorio del Pilar was headed that day towards the Northern section of the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) to monitor North Korea’s planned missile launch. While passing by Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) which is 124 nautical miles from Zambales, the del Pilar was ordered to stop and investigate the presence of eight Chinese fishing vessels inside the lagoon. Navy officials boarded a fishing boat and discovered large amounts of coral, live sharks, and giant clams all of which are illegal to fish or harvest under Philippine law. No arrests were made because 2 Chinese Marine Surveillance ships arrived at the scene and positioned themselves between the Philippine Navy ship and the Chinese fishing boats. The two sides stare each other down all of Wednesday. On Thursday Malacanang blinked!

The BRP Gregorio del Pilar a Philippine Navy frigate painted gray is ordered off the shoal. Its departure came a day after the Chinese Embassy in Manila demanded that the PHL warship leave the area. The face-saving excuse fed to the press at the time was that the del Pilar needed to replenish supplies and refuel. Truth be told, Malacañang was adhering to its maritime policy of “white-on-white, gray-on-gray.” This meant that since the Chinese had their white Marine Surveillance ships on the shoal, the Philippines had to replace its gray naval vessel with a white civilian ship. The Philippines then sent a small Coast Guard vessel to take its place.

Thanks to this misplaced sense of fair play or what some might even call chivalry, Malacañang gave away its upper hand in the standoff. If the Philippines had been a global or even a regional military power facing down a weaker adversary, it probably could afford to pursue a “white-on-white, gray-on-gray” policy. But for a country like the Philippines that has an air force with no advanced fighter aircraft, and a navy whose most modern ship was the del Pilar—a Vietnam-era hand-me-down cutter from the US Coast Guard, it was in no position to act chivalrous or magnanimous and give up whatever advantage it had without so much as a whimper.

Back on the 12th of April 2012, we still had the upper hand—we had the biggest boat in the shoal. We could have simply stood our ground and stared down the Chinese for as long as they wanted.TOP:BRP Gregorio del Pilar. BOTTOM: Chinese fishermen apprehended by the del Pilar pose standing on their large haul of Giant clams. Photo taken on 10th of Apri,l 2012 Unfortunately for the Philippines, its leaders were untried, untested, wet behind the ears and seemed too willing to appease the Chinese at any cost. So on that fateful Thursday, the situation for the Philippines turned into a downward spiral it was never able to recover from. The coup de grâce finally came two months later when President Benigno Aquino III himself ordered the 2 remaining Philippine vessels to leave the shoal. Typhoon Butchoy was approaching and for safety reasons—ostensibly, the two vessels were ordered home.

So far, no Philippine ship has ever returned to Panatag Shoal. Neither have the legions of Filipino fishermen who have fished in its lagoon and surrounding waters for centuries. The shoal is now teaming with Chinese fishing boats guarded by Chinese vessels (both gray and white). Entrance to the lagoon has now been “roped-off” by China barring Filipinos from its rich fishing grounds.

Now a year and two months since the incident started, it is clear that the Chinese knew exactly what they were doing from day one. They deduced quite accurately how the Philippine leaders would react. They knew that the Philippines was weak militarily but more importantly, they knew that Philippine leaders were inexperienced, and untested. They knew it was just a matter of time before Malacañang would fold and Panatag Shoal would be theirs for the taking. What might have come as a bit of a surprise to the Chinese was how quickly Malacañang and its yellow-shirted advisers buckled and ran screaming for the exits. Published 6/14/2013


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