Back-Channel, Back-Room, Back-Bite

 It’s more fun in the Senate.

In the latest spectacle, Sen. Antonio Trillanes in a privilege speech accused Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile of railroading a bill dividing Camarines Sur into two, a Nueva Camarines and presumably a Vieja Camarines. This “gerrymandering” will reportedly favor the political ambitions of Camarines Gov. Luis Villafuerte, the political adversary of the late Jesse Robredo; and Datu Arroyo, the son of ex-President GMA. Trillanes said JPE was “beholden to GMA” and a GMA “lackey”.

 JPE retaliated by claiming Trillanes’ accusations were in response to his denying him a bigger budget for his committee. He said Trillanes was an ingrate who had forgotten he was responsible for Trillanes’ release from prison.

And there was more.

JPE accused Trillanes of being “ a coward” and a “fraud” questioning the former naval officer’s patriotism. It appears since May 2012, upon the authority of Malacanang, Trillanes has conducted “back-channel” negotiations with the Chinese Government to de-escalate the Scarborough Shoal dispute. This was an end- run around DFA Sec. Albert del Rosario.

China is opposed to the Philippines’ official stance to take up the Scarborough matter in a multilateral forum with the U.S. and the ASEAN. China understandably prefers a bilateral discussion where it can apply its superior commercial and military leverage over us. China is about face, opaqueness and quiet conversations. The talks with Trillanes offered China an opportunity to privately address an issue that was generating bad international press.

In the course of his discussions, Trillanes is said by JPE to have denigrated Sec. Del Rosario and to have essentially sold the Philippines down the river. JPE quotes from notes allegedly taken by Philippine Ambassador to China, Sonia Brady. The latter, incidentally, has succumbed to a medical condition, whether or not precipitated by the stress of her work it is unclear.

Trillanes claims he “accomplished his mission” by diffusing the Scarborough dispute “by 95%”. There used to be ’80-100 Chinese vessels “ in the area, there are now only around three. If you do the math, by this yardstick he is about right.

Here is my take: There are two unrelated issues which have been joined by the hip, in the process endangering our national security. One is the partition of Camarines Sur. The other is the notion of back-door negotiations with China on a matter of national interest.

On the first, the partition of Camarines, the nation deserves a transparent, stand-alone presentation on its merits and why specific parties are so wanting of it.

On the issue of back-channels, we need to distinguish between the messenger, the message, the manner of its conveyance, and its author. Trillanes was the messenger. If in his efforts to win over the Chinese, he did indeed disparage Sec. Del Rosario and compromised our country’s negotiating position; is a matter he should clarify and, if warranted, apologize. Trillanes says Amb. Brady’s notes should speak for themselves and not through the Senate President. JPE intimates the messenger should be shot, figuratively I presume.

The message to the Chinese was that even as the Philippines continues to officially endorse multi-lateral diplomacy, it is prepared to talk privately about dialing down the rhetoric. There seems no harm in this as long as the DFA was in on it. Amb. Brady took notes of the meetings between Trillanes and the Chinese so her boss Del Rosario must have been in the loop.

If anybody has reservations, they should address them to Malacanang as author of the message. The Palace confirms the President authorized the initiative (That Presidential spokesperson Lacierda also said it is up to Trillanes to explain his role as negotiator with China is therefore weird. Did you guys not send him there?).

Whether a back channel was a good idea or not is a judgment call, not unpatriotic nor inane. Kissinger used it successfully in Vietnam, George Mitchell unsuccessfully in the Israel/Palestinian conflict. In Scarborough, the President is torn between his Constitutional duty to protect our sovereignty and the reality of dealing with a stronger and intransigent nation over which we are powerless. The back channel was designed to kick the can down the road outside of the public eye. Right or wrong it has bought the Palace the time it wanted time even though it would now prefer the whole thing just went away.

There are many questions still unanswered like: Why select Trillanes as negotiator? Who gave JPE Amb. Brady’s notes and why? If the DFA has a beef with back-channels why not take it up with Malacanang? What is the deeper rift between JPE and Trillanes that it generates this much heat? What is the real score on Camarines Sur?

But in the meantime let us dispense with the washing of our nation’s dirty linen in public. This dysfunction in our leadership plays to our adversaries. If the gentlemen of the Senate have an issue with what is a local dispute, the partitioning of a province, as patriots they might take their grievances outside and not expose our national security to collateral damage.

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About Leo Alejandrino

The blog is principally a commentary on Philippine politics and economics.
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4 Responses to Back-Channel, Back-Room, Back-Bite

  1. Bobotroldan says:

    Mr. Alejandrino,
    It is only in your column that I have read that mrs Brady took notes of the meeting of trillanes and the Chinese. I have the understanding that he did the dealings all by himself and that the notes is the meeting between Brady, del Rosario and trillanes. Can you possibly clear this out?

    • Amb.Brady took notes of her conversation with Trillanes.Del Rosario was not present. Brady was aware of Trillanes’s meetings with the Chinese but it is unclear whether she was present at these meetings.

  2. I was just wondering why everybody sidetracked the issue between Trillanes and Enrile. The main issue was about splitting Camarines Sur into 2 parts. It was just Enrile who initiated the diversion tactics. It’s so surprising that you continued to focus on the backdoor negotiations which has a good purpose for the country and yielded good results instead of Enrile’s railroading of Camarines Sur division which has of no importance at all. Nobody from the media has ever focused on the Camarines Sur issue. Don’t tell me you’ve been corrupted by Enrile and Gloria as well.

  3. Pingback: When senators get unhappy | PinoyJourn: Stories behind the Stories

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