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Heavy fallout from 'back-channelling'

Publication Date : 26-09-2012


The controversy over the clandestine intervention of Antonio Trillanes, a junior senator, as a mediator in our dispute with China on territories in the West Philippine Sea is far from being a spent force. It is intensifying in velocity, and the fallout is heavy.

It is damaging to both Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile and Trillanes, who are at the centre of the storm raging over the latter’s so-called “back-channelling” mission to “ease tensions” with China as President Aquino’s “special envoy” in cloak-and-dagger talks with the Chinese. Fortunately, in the interest of conducting talks properly in normal diplomatic channels, Trillanes has not yet been designated as “envoy plenipotentiary and extraordinary” of the Repulic accredited to Beijing.

The secrecy of Trillanes’ entry into the realm of diplomacy via the back door in an open, democratic society has generated heated issues over his competence and legitimacy to undertake such a delicate mission involving national security. In the Senate, the political home base of both Enrile and Trillanes, the air is heavy with accusations of “treason” (according to Enrile) on the part of Trillanes and in his alleged pushing the Chinese line in the dispute with the Philippines over the Spratlys and Scarbourough Shoal, and charges of security breach on the part of Enrile for revealing confidential, or even classified, diplomatic documents, when he read into the Senate records notes taken by Philippine Ambassador to Beijing Sonia Brady.

The notes reported on Trillanes’ activities related to his secret mission in Beijing, bypassing, in the process, the channels of the Department of Foreign Affairs, the official interlocutor of Philippine foreign policy.

The conflict in the Senate between Enrile and Trillanes has caught fire with the intervention of a heavyweight senator, Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who said Enrile might have compromised state secrets when he disclosed notes said to have been written by Brady after an encounter with Trillanes two weeks ago.

Santiago said an ambassador’s reports “are always highly confidential and are meant only for the eyes of the secretary of foreign affairs.”

Whether or not Enrile revealed classified state secrets, much has already been spilled during the exchange between him and Trillanes that may have given the Chinese aid and comfort. What was said on the Senate floor is spilled milk that can no longer be put back into the bottle. At the very least, the disclosures in the Senate have given the Chinese, the international community, as well as our own people, a clear idea of how we conduct our foreign policy or how discordant we are on the territorial dispute with China.

It is clear, especially to the Chinese, that the Philippines’ entire political establishment, including the administration and the Senate, is not speaking in one voice. There is no single authoritative voice on policy on the territorial dispute with China. This cacophony of points of view from official institutional sources (the Palace, the Senate, the DFA) is sending mixed messages to the Chinese, and revealing weaknesses in our negotiating positions (thanks to our suicidal tendencies), and they are taking advantage of these.

There are one too many channels for negotiations—a direct line from the President, through special envoys such as Trillanes, who comes from the Senate, and the normal institutional channel, the DFA, which has been undermined by Trillanes’ mission that considers itself beyond the control of the secretary of foreign affairs. This setup is confusing to our adversary and even to our institutional diplomats,who feel undercut by it.

This multilayered method of conducting delicate and sensitive negotiations over territorial claims and sovereignty has called into question the maturity of judgement and competence of the president, who is conceded to be the ultimate fountain of foreign policy, in giving directions on external affairs involving war or peace. The fact alone that the president has appointed Trillanes special envoy to China, without consulting his foreign affairs secretary, Albert del Rosario, a veteran diplomat who was once our ambassador to the United States, compels inquiry into how and why a neophyte in the Senate and a failed coup maker (recall the infamous Oakwood hotel/apartments mutiny) was picked to conduct negotiations with the Chinese.

It is lamentable that the face-off between Enrile and Trillanes over the Brady notes has degenerated into a circus and a hubristic clash of bloated egos. It is of small importance to me who is a more accomplished parliamentary performer to entertain the cackling public gallery on the gladiatorial arena of the Senate. Who came off with a bloody head in this encounter is an issue that trivialises the much bigger issue of standing up to Chinese incursions on disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea. The Senate imbroglio over the Brady notes and clash over the gerrymandering in Camarines Sur are provincial concerns and are irrelevant to the China back-channelling issue.

What is causing more concern is the diplomatic fiasco stemming from the surreptitious backdoor approach in the Trillanes diplomatic mission. From evidence already given to the Senate, there are strong indications that Trillanes sought the back-channelling initiative—and the president approved. There are many questions that have to be answered, one of which being: Are national interests being sold down the river through secret back-room diplomacy? This issue is very much alive.


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