Rift in Philippine government over secret China talks in shoal row

Philippine president's use of back-channel negotiator over Scarborough Shoal angers foreign minister, who was left out of process

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 20 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 20 September, 2012, 4:46am


A politician once jailed for plotting a military coup has held secret talks with China over a territorial row - a tactic that appears to have backfired amid bitter infighting.

A spokesman for Philippine President Benigno Aquino said Senator Antonio Trillanes had been authorised to hold back-channel talks with Beijing to settle a row over competing claims to the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, known in China as Huangyan Island.

But the appointment caused a deep rift with Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, who had been officially in charge of talks with China and was excluded from the unofficial ones.

Trillanes claimed he had been responsible for easing tensions with China after the dispute erupted in April, and accused del Rosario of "treason" because of his allegedly aggressive tactics. "Right now there is no more crisis involving Scarborough, but we were nearly brought to war. That was a treasonous act [by del Rosario]," Trillanes said, repeating a claim he made on radio and to politicians.

He said public statements made by del Rosario accusing China of bullying the Philippines nearly led to open confrontation. Trillanes said he had met "top Chinese officials" at least 15 times in Manila and in Beijing since May.

In a televised interview on Monday, del Rosario said back-channel talks "were doing more harm than good", although he did not name Trillanes.

After the row spilled out to the local media, presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda sought to limit the fallout at a press conference yesterday. "I can categorically say that the secretary of foreign affairs has the trust and confidence of the president," Lacierda said. However, he said he could not answer questions as to why Aquino had appointed Trillanes as an extra negotiator.

Trillanes' appointment then became the top political story in the country when Senate president Juan Ponce Enrile launched a blistering attack on the former navy man in a nationally televised address. Enrile, the third-highest official in the country, said he backed del Rosario and accused Trillanes of undermining the Philippines' position with China. "This guy is a fraud," Enrile said. "He told the Chinese we cannot impose our coastal protection."

The shoal is 230 kilometres from the western coast of the Philippines' main island of Luzon. China claims nearly all of the South China Sea, even waters close to other nations.

A former navy lieutenant, Trillanes was among the leaders of two failed coups in 2003 and 2007 against then president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. He won a Senate seat in 2007 from a jail cell while on trial for rebellion. He was subsequently granted amnesty by Aquino, a fierce critic of Arroyo, before the trial ended.