On September 3, Philippine Secretary of Defense Voltaire Gazmin presented aerial photographs taken of Scarborough Shoal to a congressional hearing. These photographs were taken by the Philippines Air Force a few days earlier and showed what appeared to be thirty concrete blocks, two vertical posts and a white bouy in the lagoon.
Secretary Gazmin speculated that the concrete blocks “could be a prelude to construction” and were a violation of the 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea.
A day later, the Department of National Defense reported that new photographs had identified a total of 75 concrete blocks at Scarborough Shoal. Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alberto del Rosario announced that the Philippines intended to file a diplomatic protest with China.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
An official Chinese spokesperson for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs responded to a question about the concrete blocks by stating, “what the Philippine side said is not true.” China released its own photographs of Scarborough Shoal showing the tips of rocks jutting out of the sea at high tide.
Six weeks after Secretary Gazmin’s highly charged allegations the Philippines was forced to back down. On October 23, President Benigno Aquino revealed that the blocks shown in the photographs were “very old” and “not a new phenomenon.” “Some of them,” he said, “have barnacles attached to them.”
Aquino then undercut the Philippines’ argument that China had virtually annexed Scarborough Shoal by admitting that local Filipinos freely go there to fish.
Two days later, Gazmin tried to explain the contradiction between his earlier testimony and the president’s remarks. Gazmin stated that “the president is right that some of the blocks have barnacles meaning that they are already old. But this is new to us because we just saw them recently.”
Gazmin admitted that the Philippines Air Force had no way of knowing how old the concrete blocks were.
Gazmin also noted that “we conduct regular air patrols there” but high tide might have prevented aerial reconnaissance from spotting the blocks on previous missions.” Gazmin concluded that there was no need to remove the blocks, as once suggested, because they did not pose a threat to navigation.
When asked to state categorically whether China put the blocks in Scarborough Shoal, Gazmin replied, “We cannot tell.”
Coincidently, the Department of Foreign Affairs announced that it had dropped plans to file a diplomatic protest with China.
The matter of the “blocks versus rocks” controversy took an unexpected turn when military sources reported the findings of a defense investigation into the concrete blocks at Scarborough Shoal. The concrete blocks had been placed there by the U.S. Navy as “sinkers” to bolster old ships that were used for target practice.
Military investigators interviewed Filipino fishermen who reported having seen the concrete blocks in the late 1980s.
The military investigators also determined that the two vertical posts photographed in late August at the north entrance to Scarborough Shoal were put in place in 1989 by the Philippines Navy to support construction of a lighthouse.
A day after these new revelations, Foreign Affairs Secretary del Rosario claimed the government had yet to determine the facts of the case. “I think you have two opposing views,” he said, “the Philippines view is that there are concrete blocks there except we don't know how it got there, when it got there and who put it there. The Chinese view is that there are no concrete blocks. There are only rocks. So there you are.”
The “rocks versus blocks” episode raises important questions about the capabilities of the Armed Forces of the Philippines to maintain maritime domain awareness in areas of strategic interest. The Philippines claims it conducts regular reconnaissance flights over Scarborough Shoal. Was allowance made for low and high tide conditions? If the concrete blocks have been place since the late 1980s, why has it taken military imagery analysts so long to identify them? Surely there must be files of past imagery going back years if not decades.
Why weren’t historical records held by the Department of National Defense consulted immediately? It is difficult to believe that the Department of National Defense has such a poor institutional memory that the placement of “sinkers” and vertical poles by the U.S. and Philippine navies in the late 1980s was unknown to senior analysts.
The “rocks versus blocks” episode also raises the question whether the Philippines’ lack of strategic trust in China has resulted in a skewing – if not politicization – of intelligence analysis. Why the rush to judgment?
Finally, the “rocks versus blocks” controversy has embarrassed not only the Philippines government but damaged the credibility of the Department of National Defense and the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Further, this episode unnecessarily strained Manila’s relations with Beijing at a time when China is promoting joint maritime cooperation with ASEAN states. The Philippines owes its regional partners, friends and allies a detailed explanation. The Philippines should retract its allegations against China and apologize for the misunderstanding.