Philippines' unofficial talks with China 'helped ease tensions'

Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Philippine President Benigno Aquino III yesterday disclosed that Senator Antonio Trillanes IV's unofficial talks with the Chinese helped ease tensions between the Philippines and China over Panatag Shoal in the West Philippine Sea.

But Aquino made it clear that going through the back channel was not the Palace's idea, but Trillanes' and that he approved it to achieve a peaceful resolution of the confrontation with China at Panatag Shoal (Scarbourough Shoal) in April.

That could be the last time an unofficial negotiator would speak for the government. The Palace said it had learned a lesson from the controversy that Trillanes had caused: the government should speak with one voice in dealing with China on the West Philippine Sea dispute.

Speaking to reporters after he opened the Aquino-Diokno Shrine and the Armed Forces of the Philippines' Centre for Human Rights Dialogue at Fort Magsaysay in Laur, Nueva Ecija province, Aquino said Trillanes was in China at the height of the Panatag Shoal standoff.

Trillanes called him to say Chinese officials approached the senator about being a back-channel negotiator, Aquino said.

"So in the absence of any other channel existing beforehand, and as we wanted to resolve the Scarbourough Shoal standoff peacefully, we decided we would lose nothing from hearing them out," Aquino said.

Trillanes disclosed his unofficial role in the resolution of the standoff in a quarrel with Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile on Wednesday over a bill that would divide Camarines Sur into two provinces.

Enrile read into the Senate records diplomatic notes that suggested Trillanes was working to advance China's interests and was undermining the Philippines' position in the dispute. Trillanes, according to the notes from Ambassador to China Sonia Brady, claimed credit for the withdrawal of up to 40 Chinese ships from Panatag Shoal.

Enrile demanded to know who Trillanes had talked with in his 15 meetings in Beijing and what he had agreed on with the Chinese.

President Aquino acknowledged Trillanes' contribution to the clearing of Panatag Shoal after Philippine vessels stepped back from the face-off with Chinese ships in mid-June.

"When Chinese vessels arrived at Scarbourough Shoal, we counted up to 18 ships, not including the fishing vessels, which would have added up to 30 vessels," Aquino said.

Effective strategy

"The number of Chinese vessels eventually dwindled, so maybe Trillanes' efforts to negotiate with Chinese officials should get some credit, as well as other efforts to prevent the tension from escalating," the president said.

Aquino said informal talks were effective in resolving any standoff.

"Look at the hostage crises," he said. "There are formal channels for negotiations. There are also informal channels for talks. These two separate negotiations work hand in hand to resolve the hostage crisis," he said.

Formal channels are the domain of diplomats, but the Palace needs informal channels through which it can relay its views quickly on the Panatag Shoal dispute, he said.

Aquino, however, did not disclose Trillanes' agreements with his Chinese contacts.

"I am actually reluctant to disclose more details about the backroom talks because these were informal and must not be made public," Aquino said.

Special envoy

But he said he had given Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II "a very simple instruction" when he tapped him to be the government's special representative to China.

"He has to make sure he will express our thoughts to the highest levels of leadership of the People's Republic of China so the Philippine position is clear to them," Aquino said.

"The position will detail where we come from and what our insights reveal about the situation," he said. "If they respond, that is good. If they do not, at least we have expressed what we really feel about the dispute."

Roxas is in China as a special Philippine envoy to the 9th China-Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Expo. He will meet Chinese officials, including Vice President Xi Jinping, expected to replace President Hu Jintao next year, for economic discussions. His talks with them are expected to touch on the West Philippine Sea dispute, the Palace said.

As for Trillanes, his role in the talks with China is uncertain.

Strategic Communication Secretary Ricky Carandang said on Friday that President Aquino would decide whether to keep Trillanes as backroom negotiator

"Whether or not his job is finished is up to the president to determine," Carandang said.

One voice

But the Palace had learned a very simple lesson from the controversy caused by Trillanes, Carandang said.

"The lesson we've learned is that it is important for the government, when we face the outside world, in this case China, to speak with one voice," Carandang said by phone.

"It's important that regardless of what we're doing, what approaches we're making, we speak with one voice," he said.

Carandang declined to comment when asked if he thought Trillanes' talks with Chinese officials in Beijing and Manila had done more harm than good, as Foreign Secretary del Rosario had said.

"Trillanes' job at the time was to find a way to ease tension by opening dialogue with Chinese officials, which he did," Carandang said.

"He was not there to recommend policy, or do anything more than to ease the tension," he said.

Standoff not over

Carandang declined to say whether he thought Trillanes indeed contributed to the easing of tensions in the West Philippine Sea.

The standoff at Panatag Shoal is not really over, with three Chinese vessels still there, according to Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin.

Carandang confirmed that there were still Chinese vessels at the shoal. But he said the tension had been reduced.

"We're hopeful that we can continue to talk to the Chinese to resolve the issue," he said. "The issue of claims over Scarbourough Shoal remains. We're hoping to continue dialogue with them to help resolve the issue."

Back channels

Would the Palace resort to back channels again in dealing with China?

"If it makes sense and will be helpful, we will do that," Carandang said. "It would depend on a case to case basis."

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