Noynoy Screws up the Scarborough Shoals Issue

President Benigno S. Aquino III is enjoying a surge of popularity at home, with a 78 percent approval rating against only 4 percent negatives, but his latest foray into foreign policy and relations with China has made the Philippines look silly abroad.

The gambit has also shown some of its politicians to be more interested in domestic political games than in seriously representing the nation in dealings with its giant neighbor. It also suggests that Aquino is two-faced about the seas issues, claiming to take a tough line to defend Philippine waters while cozying up to those wanting peace with China at any price.

In an attempt to calm relations with Beijing in the wake of China’s effective seizure of the Scarborough (Panatag) shoal, which lies 120 miles off the coast of Luzon, and deny its rich fishing grounds to Philippine fishing boats Aquino decided on a back-door approach. But instead of entrusting this mission to a seasoned diplomat, or even a well-regarded politician he somehow chose Senator Antonio Trillanes IV, a 41-year-old first-term senator who is better known for having led a failed coup attempt in 2003 against then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. Trillanes, then a senior grade lieutenant, led 321 soldiers to take control of the Oakwood Towers in Makati City to protest government graft and corruption. He was detained after the mutiny was quelled and spent seven years in prison.

Trillanes claimed to have very good contacts in China, although why that should be has not been explained. However he was given the imprimatur as the President’s back-channel envoy and dispatched to Beijing in August. Despite his lack of proven credentials, the naïve Aquino had been listening to Trillanes for several months and allowed him to go despite knowing that the senator, who was the first lawmaker eve to be elected from his jail cell, was known to be hostile to Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario. He had been quoted in July as saying that Rosario was a “war freak” anxious to obtain US help and thereby worsen relations with China.

Once in Beijing, according to notes of a meeting with him believed taken by Sonia Brady, the Philippine ambassador to China, Trillanes appeared to act more as a Manchurian candidate than an envoy trying to smooth relations with China without compromising the Philippine stance on the shoal, which lies well within the Philippines Exclusive Economic Zone. He expressed strong disagreement with Philippine official policy.

Trillanes thus completely undercut the role of Foreign Minister del Rosario who complained that back channeling could be useful in some circumstances but in this case was counterproductive. Del Rosario was forced to defend himself publicly against Trillanes and got no support from Aquino, who kept quiet about the whole mess he created.

Malacanang suggested the fuss was mainly a feud between senators, with Senator Juan Ponce Enrile accusing Trillanes of being a traitor.

Trillanes then attacked Manuel Pangilinan, one of the country’s top businessmen, for allegedly encouraging closer US involvement, fanning del Rosario’s alleged anti-China stance and having ulterior motives relating to oil interests on the Recto bank.

Pangilinan was naturally infuriated and threatened to move his operations to Hong Kong, where his First Pacific is a major investment management and holding company with operations in telecommunications, infrastructure, food products and natural resources.

Aquino himself tried and failed to meet Chinese President Hu Jintao at the recent APEC summit in Vladivostok, hoping to discuss the jurisdiction issue but in the wider context of China-Philippine relations.

So now, in the wake of the Trillanes mess, Aquino has had to send Interior Secretary and former Senator Mar Roxas as his special envoy to meet Xi Jinping, President Hu’s heir-apparent.

But the whole episode has shown that while Aquino may be honest and likable his judgments of people and issues leaves much to be desired. And it shows how China must see the Philippines as a pushover, with nationalist rhetoric always undercut by politicians with pecuniary or political interests which transcend the national interest.