China splits Philippine
politics By Richard Javad
MANILA - Rising diplomatic
tensions with China have sown divisions inside the
Philippine ruling establishment, a widening and
potentially destabilizing rift that has split
President Benigno Aquino's administration. While
Aquino has publicly taken a hard line in response
to Beijing's perceived provocations in the South
China Sea, he has privately bid to use back
diplomatic channels to maintain crucial bilateral
trade and investment ties.
infighting comes in response to strained bilateral
relations with China that some fear could break
into open confrontation without a diplomatic
course shift. That risk has risen in the context
of America's "pivot" towards Asia and as Aquino
makes strategic overtures towards the United
States, including calls for more military
assistance and the provision of spy planes
to monitor China's naval
activities in adjacent waters.
Aquino issued a September 5 administrative order
to officially rename the South China Sea the West
Philippine Sea, a move that asserted Manila's
sovereignty over contested maritime areas and
potentially legally bound the US to defend those
claims through a mutual defense treaty, Chinese
President Hu Jintao refused to meet Aquino on the
sidelines of last month's Asia-Pacific Economic
Conference (APEC) summit in Russia.
Although the president legally has the
final say over Philippine foreign policy, the
Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) is
functionally the main institutional arbiter of
external relations. Owing to the outsized
significance of Sino-Filipino relations, DFA's
control over China policy has been steadily
undercut by competing interest groups, including
highly influential business corporations with
interests in China.
While Aquino has
publicly condemned Chinese aggression, he
apparently secretly sanctioned neophyte Senator
Antonio Trillanes to pursue a parallel track of
"back door" diplomacy with Beijing. The gambit was
apparently initiated with little or no
consultation with Foreign Secretary Albert Del
Rosario - although other sources say that Del
Rosario was in the cabinet meeting while Aquino
was talking with Trillanes on the phone in the
loudspeaker mode - and without the permission of
Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile.
gambit became public, with some commentators
claiming the diplomatically inexperienced
Trillanes fell unwittingly into a Chinese trap.
The commentators claimed Beijing exploited the
junior legislator's budding political ambitions by
using him to divide the Philippine leadership,
assert greater control over the contested
Scarborough Shoal, and isolate the purportedly
pro-US faction within the DFA.
officials apparently convinced Trillanes they were
willing to withdraw their vessels from the
disputed maritime territory around Scarborough
Shoal in exchange for a reciprocal move by Manila.
US senior envoy for East Asian and Pacific Affairs
Kurt Campbell had earlier suggested to both the
DFA and China to make a simultaneous withdrawal to
de-escalate tensions and avoid militarization of
the disputed area.
boasted soon after in the local press about his
role in "easing tensions" and "avoiding war",
bringing the back channel talks into the public
eye. Manila's withdrawal, however, was met by
China removing only some of its naval ships.
Beijing has since fortified its position around
the shoal with a growing number of paramilitary
and surveillance vessels.
In July, China
consolidated its claim to the area by upgrading
the administrative status of the nearby Sansha
island, and demonstrated a willingness to defend
the contested outpost through subsequent naval
maneuvers in the vicinity. The Scarborough Shoal
area has since for all practical purposes been
off-limits to even Filipino fishermen and
Critics of the
Trillanes-led deal claim as a result the
Philippines has lost whatever measure of control
it previously exercised over the shoal and its
surrounding lagoon through its secretly negotiated
withdrawal. They note that China has even refused
to honor an earlier mutually agreed fishing ban to
preserve the shoal area's fragile eco-system.
The fallout has reverberated through the
Philippines' domestic politics, pitting China
hawks versus China doves. For his part, Trillanes
is said to have accused Del Rosario of "treason"
for his dealings with the US and antagonism
towards China, charges of treachery the foreign
secretary has strongly refuted. As a veteran
diplomat, including as former ambassador to the
US, Del Rosario has driven a revitalization of
Philippine-US strategic ties, including through
several hat-in-hand trips to Washington.
In criticizing DFA policy, Trillanes has
claimed that most Filipinos are uninterested in
the Scarborough Shoal issue and would prefer
instead to have cordial relations with China.
According to an opinion poll conducted across 77
provinces by Laylo Research Strategies in August,
69% of Filipinos are concerned about preserving
national sovereignty over the disputed shoal.
The Trillanes camp has also highlighted
Del Rosario's former employment under Manny
Pangilinan, chairman of Philex Petroleum and a
potential key player in future exploitation of oil
and gas in disputed South China Sea territories.
They have publicly questioned Del Rosario's
"impartiality" in dealing with China, insinuating
a conflict of interest between his public and past
The war of words and
Aquino's apparent secret diplomacy outside of DFA
channels have reportedly prompted Del Rosario to
consider resigning his post in protest. Trillanes
has already called for Manuel Roxas, the newly
appointed interior secretary, to replace Del
Rosario should he step down.
all around On the other side of the
political divide, Senate President Enrile has
rushed to Del Rosario's defense. Enrile has
accused Trillanes of not only bypassing normal
parliamentary procedures in pursuit of the "back
door" gambit (protocol required notification of
the Senate president), but also of serving as a
Chinese "fifth column".
provided by Philippine Ambassador to China Sonya
Brady (who recently suffered a stroke and will
soon be replaced), Enrile claimed that Trillanes
held talks with top Chinese officials on at least
16 occasions. Enrile also insinuated Trillanes'
"treason" allegations against Del Rosario,
including accusations that the foreign secretary
aimed to create a "war event" to justify boosting
US military ties, were motivated by his Chinese
contacts. Enrile himself has since been accused of
treason for revealing confidential diplomatic
notes in an open Senate session.
antagonistic rhetoric and intra-government rifts
has put Aquino in a tight political spot. In a bid
to stem the political damage, Aquino has asked
both Del Rosario and Trillanes to stop making
public statements on the issue. "Senator Trillanes
has the best interest of the country in mind ... I
can categorically say the secretary of foreign
affairs enjoys the trust and confidence of the
President," presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda
said diplomatically in a recent news briefing.
Aquino has publicly denied Trillanes'
claim that he was quietly appointed as a special
envoy to China, saying instead he merely responded
positively to Trillanes' suggestion to explore
talks and ease tensions with China ahead of a trip
he planned to make to China in May sponsored by
Filipino-Chinese business executives. Philippine
industrialists and businessmen have looked to
Trillanes to smooth relations after Beijing
imposed obstacles to bilateral trade and travel in
the wake of the Scarborough Shoal stand-off.
In a press interview, Trillanes said he
was approached by the Federation of Filipino
Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry to play
a mediating role. Lucio Tan, the Filipino-Chinese
owner of Philippine Airlines with business
interests in China, even sponsored his first-class
trip to Beijing, Trillanes said in the interview.
The economic stakes of falling afoul China
are huge. China, including Hong Kong, is the
Philippines' largest export destination,
accounting for 24% of total exports last year.
Mainland China is the country's third-largest
trade partner, with annual bilateral trade
hovering around US$30 billion. Last year, the two
countries agreed to expand their bilateral trade
to $60 billion by 2016, which if achieved would
transform mainland China alone into the
Philippines' biggest export market.
Leading Filipino entrepreneurs with
interests in China's booming real estate and
retail sectors have banked heavily on their
growing foreign investments there. Chinese
visitors to the Philippines, meanwhile, were the
fourth largest source of tourist revenues in 2011.
Beijing has also been a growing source of
badly needed foreign direct investment, with
China-financed projects across the Philippines now
worth nearly $8 billion. Despite concerns about
corruption and transparency, China is still
considered a key source of concessional loans,
primarily in the area of infrastructure
development, a core component of Aquino's economic
In this light, Aquino's apparent
approval of Trillanes' s back-channel diplomacy
was an attempt to balance competing interests and
appease Beijing while not backing away publicly
from his tough rhetoric to defend the country's
territorial integrity. In the wake of last month's
APEC snub and the Del Rosario versus Trillanes
fiasco, Aquino tasked interior secretary Roxas to
meet on September 21 China's next leader, Xi
Jingping, as a special envoy.
to vice president Xi [that] talk is better than no
talk. So the fact that we are talking at the
highest levels, the fact that messages are
reliably conveyed, I think it's a good
foundation," Roxas said in a news briefing after
the meeting. "I think given the situation at least
we are talking again with senior officials of the
People's Republic of China, so that's a nice
start," Aquino added.
niceties have helped to ease bilateral tensions
while China's leadership transition unfolds, but
the pitched struggle between competing factions
with divergent views towards China inside Aquino's
administration remains wholly unresolved. As
Aquino attempts to strike a balance between
national security concerns and economic
imperatives, the risk of more infighting and
policy incoherence is high.
Javad Heydarian is a foreign affairs analyst
based in Manila. He can be reached at
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