If our relations with China are at their lowest ever, and if Filipinos are livid at the superpower for its purported bullying, our top diplomat, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, should to a great extent be blamed.
That’s the only conclusion one would get from the report of Senator Antonio Trillanes 3rd as President Benigno S. Aquino’s “backchannel” envoy to China from May to August 2012. Trillanes said that he had 14 back-channel meetings, seven of which were in China and seven in Manila.
The senator’s account, and his allegations against del Rosario are contained in his undated four-page aide memoire entitled “Summary of Backchannel Talks,” which had been made available to me.
Trillanes, in his paper, pointed out he had succeeded in his talks with Chinese officials, so that they ordered on June 10, 2012 the withdrawal from the disputed Scarborough Shoal (Bajo de Masinloc in our maps) of their Coastal Marine Surveillance (CMS) ships and 14 fishing boats. A crisis had broken out on the shoal after a May 30 confrontation between Chinese fishermen and Philippine Coast Guard personnel. Our two Bureau of Fishing and Aquatic Resources vessels carrying the PCG personnel, as part of the agreement, also left the area.
On June 19 that year, though, Aquino called Trillanes to say that they were “betrayed by China.” Aquino referred him to the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s huge banner-photo which showed Chinese uniformed personnel holding a Chinese flag on the shoal, with the headline in huge fonts screaming: “China ships stay on shoal.”
Trillanes in his report wrote that his Beijing negotiators denied the news story, and pointed out that the photo was an old one from the 1980s. The senator himself had suspected so as the photo had clear blue skies and calm waters as background, when in fact a typhoon was passing through the area at the time the photo was published. Trillanes claimed that his contacts in the newspaper told him that the false news story and photo came from del Rosario.
According to subsequent reports, the Chinese ships, both their CMS vessels and the fishing boats, indeed, had left the shoal, although as Trillanes said in his report, the Chinese would not announce that this was due to negotiations with the Philippine government. The official explanation of the foreign ministry was that the ships escorted the fishing boats to the Chinese mainland to escape an impending typhoon that would pass the shoal.
Second del Rosario story
There was a second instance in which del Rosario planted, Trillanes alleged, a false news story in the Philippine Daily Inquirer that roused Philippine ire against China:
“On 24 June, the Philippine Daily Inquirer published a story about a Chinese vessel ramming a Filipino fishing boat. Again, P-Noy called me and he was furious about this incident. I told him that I would ask Beijing about it. When I confronted the negotiators, they told me that their ships are in place and that the incident happened in an area that was at least 150 nautical miles away.
“So I investigated further by sending somebody to talk to one of the survivors who was then confined in Ilocos Sur. The survivor said that they were already sinking while tied to a fish marker and that they were not rammed at all. I then asked around again in the Inquirer as to who fed the story. My sources then revealed that the story came from Sec. del Rosario. “ (Emphasis mine.)
According to Trillanes, he recommended in an executive Cabinet meeting on July 5 that Aquino adopt a bilateral approach to resolving the territorial dispute with China, especially that over Scarborough shoal.
He explained that his bilateral talks with Chinese representatives had resulted in the drastic reduction of Chinese vessels from almost a hundred to only three. Trillanes told Aquino that the Chinese committed to pull out the remaining three CMS vessels if the Philippines does not internationalize it by raising the issue at the Asean Regional Forum (AFRE), scheduled July 12. The Chinese, he said, also assured him that they would not put up any structure around the shoal.
Del Rosario, however, pushed for internationalizing the dispute. “I clearly remember USec. Henry Bensurto with a PowerPoint presentation telling everybody in the meeting that the annexation of Scarborough Shoal by China would be used as a springboard to claim Western Luzon. Sec. del Rosario proceeded to present that China had almost 100 vessels in and around the shoal; that they placed a rope at the entrance of the shoal and the Chinese were duplicitous.”
(“USec Henry Bensurto” is not an undersecretary but at the time of the meeting, an assistant secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs heading its West Philippine Sea Center and the Secretary-General of the Commission on Maritime and Ocean Affairs Secretariat. He would be part of the Philippine team that filed the arbitration case against China on the West Philippine Sea dispute, which is now pending before an Arbitral Tribunal in the Hague. He was assigned June this year as the Consul General of San Francisco, U.S.A., a much sought-after post among Philippine diplomats. “The rope at the entrance of the shoal” del Rosario alleged is sheer nonsense, a source familiar with Scarborough shoal explained. The “rope” seen by Coast Guard personnel was a remnant of anchor ropes floating near the entrance of the shoal.)
Cut ties with China
Trillanes continued: “It was at this point that Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile… raised the ante and proposed on the table that we study the option of completely cutting ties with China. Sec. del Rosario and Sec. Almendras followed suit and the discussion went on with NEDA detailing how many percentage points would be shaved off the GDP; DTI, explaining that the electronics exports sectors would be gravely affected; and DOLE, saying how many OFWs would be repatriated, etc.”
“In the end, when the vote came in, it was lopsided in favor of Sec. del Rosario’s option…” (to internationalize it and bring it to the AFR.)
Del Rosario’s strategy failed, though – or maybe not. The AFR host, Cambodia refused to issue a communiqué for the assembly — the first time this had happened in such ASEAN meetings — which necessarily would have contained a reference to the Philippines’ dispute with China over the Scarborough Shoal. When del Rosario began to raise the sensitive issue of the South China Sea at the summit, his microphone went dead. A technical glitch, said the Cambodian hosts.
Right after his arrival in Manila, del Rosario called for a press conference in which he was furious at the Cambodians’ refusal to issue a communiqué, and at an unidentified state’s “increasing assertion” in disputed waters, even warning it was raising the risk of conflict. That certainly made many more Filipinos mad at China.
Trillanes concluded in his report that in August 2012 he “politely declined from continuing with (his) role as backchannel negotiator since P-Noy had already decided his policy action (of internationalizing the dispute.)”
During Trillanes’ stint as backchannel negotiator in 2012, there were persistent reports that del Rosario detested the senator’s role, and had even threatened to resign his post, as he wasn’t consulted on the matter.
I wonder, though: China is such a huge superpower in our hemisphere, and it would affect, whether we like it or not, our nation’s future, the welfare of a 100 million Filipinos. Shouldn’t exposing del Rosario’s complicity, as Trillanes alleges, in our worsening ties with China be of higher priority for the senator than persecuting Vice President Jejomar Binay?
Why would del Rosario, as Trillanes seems to allege, want our territorial tensions with China maintained at an intense level? That on Wednesday.