In Manila, President Benigno S. Aquino III’s appointment of Senator Antonio Trillanes IV as his back-channel negotiator with Beijing during the Scarborough stand-off earlier this year has back-fired spectacularly, and the administration is now drawing flak. A doyen of Philippine journalism, who should probably retire, has called the President’s back-channeling a reckless adventure, while one deranged blogger is saying that the Philippines has ceased to be a sovereign state due to the episode.
This blog disagrees with these rabid critics, of course. There is nothing wrong with back-channeling when dealing with a foreign power on something as serious as the Scarborough stand-off. In fact, it’s a fairly common practice of statecraft: It allows nations, in times of crisis, to test waters, send feelers, and thereby explore every possible way to resolve conflicts, even as they parrot an official line. There was, however, something seriously wrong about choosing Senator Trillanes to be the President’s back-door point man.
For starters, Senator Trillanes isn’t exactly known for his trouble-shooting abilities. In fact, it appears that he’s more of a trouble-maker: As a Navy commander in 1999, he allegedly rammed a Chinese fishing boat on waters around the Scarborough Shoal, causing a minor diplomatic ruckus with the People’s Republic. Then Foreign Affairs Secretary Domingo L. Siazon had to convince his friend and fellow Japanese speaker, Vice Foreign Minister for Asian Affairs Wang Yi, that the collision was an “accident.” Beijing grudgingly accepted an apology from the government of then President Joseph Estrada, but demanded compensation from Manila, which the latter rejected. The potential fray was averted only after the Chinese-Philippine Chamber of Commerce offered to provide compensation.
Neither is the junior senator known for his tactical skills. His laughable coup attempts against the Arroyo regime were certainly not a showcase of strategy. I mean, really, taking over a posh hotel, and with only a handful of M16s and grenades? At least Arturo Tolentino brought crowds when he camped at the Manila Hotel back in the Eighties.
Sure, his come-from-behind election to the Senate in 2007 was indeed a coup, but that success was more because of the prevailing national hatred for Arroyo than of Trillanes stratagem. Just look at how pathetic his attempted putsch against Senate President Juan Ponce-Enrile was, and you’ll see how naive he is. As the Inquirer asked in an editorial, how can anyone expect him to know where the levers of power in Beijing are, when he doesn’t even know where the levers of power in Manila are?
Thirdly, he’s not a team player. Rather than complementing the efforts of the official point man, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, the senator stabbed him in the back. He called the Secretary a war-monger for taking the only rational track for the Philippines: Speaking forcefully against Chinese incursions and strategically raising the profile of the country’s military alliance with the United States, while insisting on multilateralizing the dispute. Worse, according to notes written by Philippine Ambassador to China Sonia Brady, he even tried to sow intrigue by apparently pushing for Secretary del Rosario’s replacement by Liberal Party President and Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas III.
Fourthly, he can’t keep his mouth shut. Rather than taking his qualms with Secretary del Rosario’s efforts to himself and just try to make wiggle room to allow more flexibility in crafting Manila’s position, the senator, according to Ambassador Brady’s notes, allegedly told the Chinese about his reservations with the Secretary’s policies, how the Philippines is too weak to enforce its claims on the Scarborough Shoal, and how “nobody in the Philippines cares” about the disputed shoal. These have exposed divisions within the Philippine side, and gave the impression that the Philippine stance is so weak all Beijing has to do is to wait for Manila to succumb to pressure, rather than to negotiate a way out. Thanks to the senator, the Chinese must have realized they don’t really need to pay for spies in the Philippines.
And despite all these, Senator Trillanes has the gall to say that his back-channeling efforts have resolved the crisis. That he had convinced China to pull most of its ships out of the shoal. Excuse me, but this is bullshit.
The formula for ending the stand-off was made neither in Manila nor in Beijing but in Washington, the capital of the country which Senator Trillanes wanted out of the equation. And the DFA, not the popmpous senator, was the one involved in establishing channels in these negotiations. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell prodded both sides to simultaneously pull-out of the Shoal to defuse tensions. Both sides agreed. Unfortunately, in a glaring misstep, Secretary del Rosario made the deal public, enraging Beijing who, in order not to appear weak to its domestic constituents, denied the agreement.
Beijing has since recalled most of its ships, but not before installing ropes supported by buoys to seal the Shoal’s inner lagoon to make sure no Filipino ships could enter it. The People’s Republic has practically established possession of the area. And Senator Trillanes’ calls this a success?
Being a back-channel negotiator, says former National Security Adviser Jose T. Almonte, is a privilege that comes with responsibilities. He knows what he’s talking about. As Director of the National Security Council, he was part of the administration that successfully facilitated the defection of a ranking North Korean official and warned the United States of a terrorist plot to ram jets into major American buildings six years before 9/11. All these were accomplished quietly, but are now narrated in Trustee of A Nation, the comprehensive biography of former President Fidel V. Ramos written by that old Southeast Asian hand, Prof. W. Scott Thompson, with whom this blogger has the pleasure of corresponding.
“Negotiations should be held as a state secret. Under no circumstances should it be revealed. Only certain people must be allowed to know about it and agencies like the Department of Foreign Affairs must not be compromised,” says General Almonte.
In other words, the back-door point man must keep his mouth shut and complement, rather than obstruct, the efforts of the official actors. These are exactly the things Senator Trillanes did not do. And President Aquino wants him to remain back-channel envoy?