By Joyce Pangco Panares
Senator remains backdoor negotiator amid ruckus on his role.
It’s now out in the open: it was China which handpicked Senator Antonio Trillanes IV and asked him to serve as backchannel negotiator between Manila and Beijing over conflicting territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea.
Trillanes, who was then in China, in turn called up President Benigno Aquino III and offered his services as backchannel negotiator. This was confirmed by Mr. Aquino himself on Friday amid accusations from Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile that Trillanes was working for China. Mr. Aquino’s statement appeared to be a turnaround of the Palace’s earlier stance, when it tried to distance itself from the senator, with presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda saying that Trillanes neither had blanket authority nor plenipotentiary powers even if the senator’s offer was taken up by the Palace.
Trillanes had claimed that it was Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa who asked him to serve as the president’s backchannel negotiator, which the Palace denied.
“Senator Trillanes called me up and he was in China at that time. He was approached (and) he was asked on the possibility of him serving as backchannel negotiator,” the President said.
“So in the absence of any other channels that were existing beforehand, and since we wanted to resolve the situation in Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal), I thought we will not lose anything if we listen to what was relayed to us. So that was how it started,” he added.
The President, however, did not say who had approached Trillanes when the senator was in China. But Mr. Aquino credited Trillanes and “other efforts” for bringing down the number of Chinese vessels inside the Scarborough Shoal.
He said that before Trillanes acted as negotiator, the number of the ships reached 30, but significantly gone down after Trillanes started talking with his contacts. The President said Trillanes will remain as a backchannel negotiator. He added that he planned to talk to Trillanes about the now controversial issue.
“Well, as of now yes he is (still a backchannel negotiator) but I will have to talk to him soon. I’m just loaded with so many things these past six weeks now since (the flooding caused by) Habagat. I have to talk to him,” Mr. Aquino said.
Amid all these issues, Mr. Aquino also said his administration would try a new approach towards moving forward relations with China through a “party-to-party dialog.” He had earlier assigned Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II as special envoy when he attends the 9th China-Asean Expo in Nanning, China.
While in Nanning, Roxas is slated to meet with Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping to relay the country’s concerns on the ongoing dispute in the West Philippine Sea. Xi is being groomed to succeed Hu Jintao as president of China. Mr. Aquino explained that China appeared to favor Roxas to be the country’s special envoy to the 9th China-Asean Expo because he was also the head of the Liberal Party.
“China is a one-party state. And Mar Roxas is president of the party that I belong to,” the President said. Mr. Aquino expressed optimism that the party-to-party dialog will be able to iron out differences between the two countries over conflicting territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea. Roxas left for Nanning Thursday evening, accompanied by Lacierda.
“My instructions to Secretary Roxas were very simple: ensure that our position will be relayed to the highest levels of the leadership of the Peoples’ Republic of China so that everything is clear and nothing is lost in translation,” Mr. Aquino said.
“We want to make it clear where we are coming from, our concerns and expectations. If China responds, well and good. If not, at least we are able to explain our side,” the President added. In a separate interview, Roxas said the discussions with Xi will not cover the back-channel efforts of Senator Antonio Trillanes IV.
Mr. Aquino was supposed to meet Hu during the 20th Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation in Vladivostok two weeks ago but the bilateral dialog did not push through. Mr. Aquino said he would have wanted to have a “frank exchange of thoughts” with his Chinese counterpart.
The President said he and Hu could “divorce diplomatic niceties” so that both sides can really understand each other’s position on the territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea. Roxas’ trip to Nanning comes at a time when Beijing appears to be taking a “conciliatory approach’ with its Southeast Asian neighbors, in sharp contrast to angry rhetoric targeting Japan over disputed islands.
According to an AP report, Xi had emphasized economic ties and civic exchanges in remarks Friday to delegates from the ASEAN during the Expo. He also avoided mentioning South China Sea territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam and others that have recently flared again.
That’s in sharp contrast with recent violent protests in China and angry statements directed at Japan over islands in the East China Sea that both countries claim. Meanwhile, a source said it was not clear who paid for Trillanes’ trip to China when he called up Mr. Aquino, since it happened before he was tapped as backchannel negotiator.
Trillanes claimed the Palace paid for his 16 trips to China when he assumed the role of informal negotiator. Referring to the notes from Philippine Ambassador to China Sonia Brady, Enrile accused Trillanes of “protecting the Chinese” and wanted the Department of Foreign Affairs to “quiet down” on the Panatag Shoal issue.
Trillanes also reportedly said “no one cares about Panatag Shoal in the Philippines” and that Beijing wanted Manila to tone down its rhetoric on Chinese incursions in the disputed area. Meanwhile, Albay Rep. Al Francis Bicharra, chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said that regardless of whether Malacanang or the People’s Republic of China had initiated backdoor channeling to resolve the territorial dispute with the two countries, Trillanes had no business at all to meddle and muddle the proper diplomatic process that should be followed by the Philippine government.
“The way things stand right now, Trillanes’ intrusion in the diplomatic process was uncalled for and caused a major diplomatic ruckus that could have been avoided in the first place,” Bichara told the Manila Standard.
Bichara added the Department of Foreign Affairs and its experienced diplomats could have done better as they would be able to present a unified position of the Philippine government on the territorial dispute with China. Vice President Jejomar Binay also defended del Rosario from earlier claims by Trillanes that the country’s top diplomat had committed “treason” and was not doing his job.
“The official (foreign) policy comes from Secretary del Rosario. Then you have someone calling him a traitor. That’s rather unfortunate,” Binay said. “He is correctly guiding our foreign policy. And he speaks for the President in matters of foreign policy. It saddens me that this has happened,” he added.
But House Assistant Deputy Majority Leader and Rep. Sherwin Tugna of the Citizens Battle against Corruption said that it was the sole prerogative of President Benigno Aquino III to choose the delegation of envoy to negotiate on behalf of the country.
“He can appoint anyone on top of the DFA,” said Tugna, a lawyer and member of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Meanwhile, Tugna believed that the treason case filed against President Aquino and Trillanes (see related story) would not prosper.
“It lacks the element of giving aid to the enemy country and it must be in times of war,” Tugna said.
“Trillanes did not give aid to China. His statements, admitting that it is true, are strategies of our country and did not give any aid to China,” Tugna said.