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Trillanes: DFA chief to blame for Spratly mischief

SEN. Antonio Trillanes 3rd seems to be, to use the English translation of that vivid Tagalog term, like a mad dog howling in the Senate with accusations right and left against his sole target on God’s earth — guess who? And every time he does, he promises he’ll produce eyewitnesses and documents, which he always forgets to do.

However, I believe him when he made one of his particular allegations: that Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario deliberately caused the aggravation of our territorial disputes with China in 2012.

Image of Chinese fortification on Spratly islands
Image of Chinese fortification on Spratly islands

Trillanes’ allegation has certainly assumed importance in the context of China’s feverish activities in recent months to build fortifications and even an airstrip on the reefs of the Spratly islands which it has occupied. For a change, Trillanes’ colleagues in the Senate should grill him on his allegations. Or perhaps, as in a relevant scene in that recent movie, Big Eyes, Trillanes should grill himself.

If Trillanes’ allegations are true, the first thing government has to and must do to address the Philippines’ dispute with China is to fire del Rosario. How can we normalize our relations with China if our top diplomat himself seeks to bring the country into a quarrel with this giant of a neighbor? (And we haven’t even discussed that del Rosario, who was ambassador to the US for many years, seems to be in China media’s mind when it accused our country of being a “cute little submissive” of the US.)

Trillanes, after all, is one of President Aquino’s most loyal supporters in the Senate so that he is even seen as his attack dog: Why shouldn’t he believe Trillanes in this crucial issue?

I find Trillanes credible in his accusations on this issue for two reasons. First, unlike his other accusations-in-aid-of-his-electon in the Senate, Trillanes was himself a witness to his allegations and a participant in the relevant events.

President Aquino designated him as his “back-channel” in talking with China in early 2012, when the crisis first broke out after our coast guard ships arrested Chinese fishermen doing their business in Scarborough Shoal. The Chinese reacted by sending their ships – bigger in size and in number – to escort their fishermen and occupy Scarborough Shoal.

It is in the course of his “back-channelling” mission that he concluded that del Rosario was provoking the Chinese, so much so that an angry Trillanes blurted out: “He should be shot by firing squad for what he did.”

Second, defending China in this territorial dispute, which is what Trillanes would be interpreted as doing by accusing del Rosario, is extremely unpopular and so totally against this Senator’s obsession to be picked by Aquino as vice-presidential candidate in 2016. Why would he lie?

Aide Memoire

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 that following Aquino’s orders, he had succeeded in his back-channel talks with Chinese officials, so that they ordered on June 10, 2012 the withdrawal from the disputed Scarborough Shoal (Bajo de Masinloc on our maps) of their Coastal Marine Surveillance (CMS) ships and 14 fishing boats. Our two Bureau of Fishing and Aquatic Resources vessels, as part of the agreement, also left the area.

Nine days later, 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 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 over the shoal.

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 [were] 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.”

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 the Scarborough Shoal.

Bilateral talks

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 made the commitment to pull out the remaining three CMS vessels if the Philippines does not internationalize it by raising the issue to the Asean Regional Forum scheduled for 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. Trilllanes narrated:

“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” was not an undersecretary but a foreign affairs department assistant secretary heading its West Philippine Sea Center, and the Secretary-General of the Commission on Maritime and Ocean Affairs Secretariat.)
“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.

Trillanes report 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).

Del Rosario’s internationalization tack has failed with the Asean refusing to take a stand against China in the dispute. The country’s filing of an arbitration case at the United Nations International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea became its main venue for internationalizing the dispute.

Trillanes concluded in his report that in August 2012 he “politely declined from continuing with (his) role as back-channel 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.

What Trillanes won’t even consider, though, is the idea that del Rosario may simply be following Aquino’s guidelines.

Wasn’t Aquino already obviously belligerent and rattled our nonexistent sabres when he declared, I think rather stupidly, in a 2012 speech: “We will defend Recto Bank as if it were Recto Avenue.”?