The high-profile spats involving Senator Antonio Trillanes IV against Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert F. Del Rosario and Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile amuse, even titillate, the public. It seems like a normal (by Philippine standards) election campaign controversy except for the fact that the subject matter they argue about concerns sensitive foreign relations, particularly with the China and USD governments.
It is unfortunate that the China issue has been dragged into a manifestly political, or even personal, catfight. There are, I think two intertwined issues here from the point of view of substantive policy.
The first issue is the question of handling the Panatag shoal issue, which has implications on how the Philippine government handles its whole relations with China. There is a divergence of views here among the Philippine leadership with one school of thought—represented by Foreign Secretary De Rosario—arguing for closer ties with the United States to offset China’s advantage in military and economic strength.
The other school of thought—to which Senator Trillanes wants to be
identified with—pushes for maintaining good relations with China and
stressing a holistic approach to relations with it.
In relation to the Panatag shoal issue, it boils down to the question of easing the tension created by the original incident of incursion by Chinese fishing vessels escorted by its maritime authority into the area and the punitive action taken by the Philippine navy ship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar. It was a mismatched action which changed the status quo. President Aquino had to order the withdrawal of the navy ship and its replacement by a Coast Guard vessel in order to conform to the policy of “grey to grey, white to white.”
Questions were raised on how Secretary Del Rosario built on the incident to raise tensions, rather than ease them, from his accusations of Chinese hegemonic ambitions, to his insistence on including the Panatag shoal issue in the ASEAN Summit in Cambodia, and even to the failure of the informal meeting of President Aquino with Chinese President Hu Jintao in Vladivostok. The implication, of course, of these questions, is that Secretary Del Rosario is trying to maintain the tensions in order to justify more and substantive role for the US government in the regional boundary disputes.
President Aquino, according to his spokespersons, accepted the offer of Sen. Trillanes to mediate through back-channeling in order to keep his options open. Though it is unclear what Sen. Trillanes did, Malacañang credited him with helping to ease the tensions.
The second issue—directly brought about by the first issue—is the question of unity in foreign policy and its implementation. Foreign Secretary Del Rosario and Sen. Trillanes brought out into the open the discord in the Aquino administration on China policy.
Of course, the question of fitness for office or presidential trust of Sec. Del Rosario arose and there are reports of his “demoralization.” There are speculations that he himself provided Senate President Enrile with the ammunition against Sen. Trillanes.
Of course, foreign policy is with the Executive. There is no question that the principal here is the President. However, differences between and among Cabinet secretaries and others involved should not have gone public, much less become an issue in the Senate or the media. The only loser here is the country. The one laughing here are the great powers.