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.