‘Bootleg diplomacy’


The disastrous consequences of the reckless adventure in diplomacy in our territorial dispute with China—which our government glibly calls “back-channeling”—have come down swiftly.

In the space of two months since the maritime standoff in April between the Philippines and China at Scarborough (Panatag) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea, our government had sent two emissaries to China to try to defuse tensions that were dangerously teetering on the rim of a naval encounter.

These two diplomatic, peace-seeking initiatives were conducted outside official diplomatic channels serviced by the Department of Foreign Affairs, with a direct mandate from President Aquino himself. These ad hoc initiatives, carried out by irregular diplomats—first by Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV and then by Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II—suggested panic decisions by the ultimate source of foreign policy direction (the presidency). The bypassing of the DFA left the Philippine public wondering whether the President had secretly abolished the department or had set the stage for a major Cabinet revamp under which, according to speculations, Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario would be replaced by Roxas.

There is an appropriate term for this fashionable phrase “back-channeling.” The term is “bootleg diplomacy.”  It derives from a lethal brew—the illegally distilled and smuggled whisky, laced with ethanol, that flourished during the Prohibition Era in the United States. That era (1920-1933) spawned the racket of gangsters like Al Capone. In colloquial terms, “bootleg” has come to mean, according to some dictionaries, “informal, foolish talk, thought, or nonsense”

Nonsense is exactly what the public has been getting in the discourse over this pompous phrase “back-channeling.” Extra-official, beyond-protocol activities were carried out by government functionaries disguised as presidential emissaries without formal diplomatic accreditation, if we closely examine the results of these peace-seeking missions. especially those of Senator Trillanes. It is bootleg diplomacy in the sense that it is carried out under cover by officials.

The second of these missions is that of Roxas, who was sent officially to China as the President’s special envoy to the China-Asean Expo in Nanning. But his real mission was to convey to Chinese President Hu Jintao, who spurned a top-level meeting with Mr. Aquino in Vladivostok, Russia, two weeks ago, the Philippines’ desire to improve relations with China and help find a peaceful solution to their territorial dispute. Roxas did succeed in meeting Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to replace Hu early next year in a once-in-a-decade leadership change in the Communist Party.

Upon his return last Saturday, Roxas brought grim news. He told reporters that the negotiations with China over the disputed territories remained “deadlocked.”  This candid report was the most important result of his mission. It blasted all false expectations from the negotiations. He reported that in his talks with Xi, each side insisted on its sovereignty over the disputed territories.

The President’s instruction, Roxas said, was to tell China’s leaders that the Philippines “reserves the right to pursue our national interest” in “whatever way the President deems fit.” Roxas said he did not expect “much progress in the interim,” at least until Xi takes over, pointing out that the talks were taking place in a state of flux given the leadership change in China. It is important to emphasize that Roxas did not quibble in stating the Philippines’ position. He told Xi of the “near permanence” of Chinese vessels at Panatag Shoal, which, he argued, was “legally, historically and geographically ours.” Is this not already permanent, de facto occupation of the shoal? According to Roxas, Xi insisted on China’s ownership of the entire South China Sea (as far as the eyes can see, it may be added).

“Make no mistake, we, the Philippines, clearly conveyed our sovereignty claim to Panatag Shoal,” Roxas said. We can’t disagree with him that maintaining an open channel of communication with Chinese officials is “imperative amid the changing global role played by China.” He told Xi that “talk is better than no talk,” and that “the fact that we are talking at [this] level, the fact that messages are reliably conveyed, I think, it’s a good foundation.”

Roxas did not claim to have achieved progress in the negotiations more than laying the Philippine cards on the table: “There was no improvement [in bilateral relations]. Both sides are still saying, ‘That’s ours.’ So there hasn’t been any change. So what changed is the perception that both sides now recognize that while we are saying, ‘It’s ours,’ we see that our relations are multidimensional,and perhaps the stumbling blocks to friendly relations can be resolved through [peaceful] means. That’s what happened here.”

This report by Roxas is by far the most realistic assessment of the prospects of breaking the impasse at Panatag Shoal. It is a no-frills, dispassionate report.

Coming on the heels of the flamboyant claims of the first special envoy, Trillanes, Roxas’ report punctures the senator’s boastful statement that his intervention, through talks with unnamed Chinese contacts, had been responsible for defusing the tensions at Panatag Shoal. In his talk with Philippine Ambassador Sonia Brady, Trillanes claimed credit for the withdrawal of up to 40 Chinese ships from the shoal.

Confirming the results of the Roxas mission, the Inquirer reported that “substantial gaps” separated the Philippines and China after the Roxas-Xi talks.

Follow Us

Follow us on Facebook Follow on Twitter Follow on Twitter

More from this Column:

Other Stories:

No related posts found!

Recent Stories:

Complete stories on our Digital Edition newsstand for tablets, netbooks and mobile phones; 14-issue free trial. About to step out? Get breaking alerts on your mobile.phone. Text ON INQ BREAKING to 4467, for Globe, Smart and Sun subscribers in the Philippines.

Short URL: http://opinion.inquirer.net/?p=37592

Tags: amando doronila , Antonio trillanes , back-channelling , Mar Roxas , Philippines-china dispute , `bootleg diplomacy’

Copyright © 2014, .
To subscribe to the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper in the Philippines, call +63 2 896-6000 for Metro Manila and Metro Cebu or email your subscription request here.
Factual errors? Contact the Philippine Daily Inquirer's day desk. Believe this article violates journalistic ethics? Contact the Inquirer's Reader's Advocate. Or write The Readers' Advocate:
c/o Philippine Daily Inquirer Chino Roces Avenue corner Yague and Mascardo Streets, Makati City, Metro Manila, Philippines Or fax nos. +63 2 8974793 to 94


  • 4 French journalists held hostage in Syria freed
  • CBCP vows to uphold sacredness of life
  • Car bomber kills at least 6 at Syrian government checkpoint
  • Nothing should impede normalization of Russia-West relations – Putin
  • Prosecutor says mate in SKorean ferry steering waters for 1st time
  • Sports

  • MLB pitcher donates $100,000 for Sewol ferry victims
  • Hamilton takes pole at Chinese Grand Prix
  • Duke’s Rodney Hood joining Jabari Parker in NBA draft
  • Phelps entered in 3 events at comeback meet
  • Boston prepares for huge wave of marathon visitors
  • Lifestyle

  • Levine designs womenswear with help from fiancee
  • Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nobel laureate, dies at 87
  • Ford Mustang turns 50 atop Empire State Building
  • Pro visual artists, lensmen to judge Pagcor’s photo contest
  • ‘Labahita a la bacalao’
  • Entertainment

  • Myx TV premieres Asian American ‘docu-series’
  • A nutty finale for ‘Scandal,’ TV’s craziest show
  • EXO postpones release of mini album ‘Overdose’
  • ‘X-men’ filmmaker slams ‘fabricated’ sex attack claims
  • Singer Chris Brown’s bodyguard on trial in DC
  • Business

  • Fiat-Chrysler to produce iconic Jeep in China from 2015
  • US commerce secretary spells out economic facet of ‘pivot to Asia’
  • Italy sells luxury state cars on eBay
  • Asian shares mostly up in quiet trade
  • Dollar up in Asia on US jobs data, Ukraine deal
  • Technology

  • Nasa’s moon-orbiting robot crashes down
  • Netizens pay respects to Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • Nokia recalls 30,000 chargers for Lumia 2520 tablet
  • Facebook rolls out ‘nearby friends’ feature
  • Netizens seethe over Aquino’s ‘sacrifice’ message
  • Opinion

  • Editorial cartoon, April 17, 2014
  • A humbler Church
  • Deepest darkness
  • ‘Agnihotra’ for Earth’s health
  • It’s the Holy Week, time to think of others
  • Global Nation

  • 5 Filipinos with MERS in UAE reported in stable condition
  • PH boosts MERS monitoring after UAE nurse scare
  • Canadians back PH plea to take back waste
  • We treasure our Sierra Madre
  • OFW from UAE tests negative for MERS-Cov–health chief
  • Marketplace