THE STANDOFF between the Philippines and China over the 150-square-kilometer Scarborough or Panatag Shoal has gone beyond the diplomatic and military arenas.

Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile accused his junior, Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV, of treason for the latter’s “shady” role in talks between Manila and Beijing over the disputed territory last Sept. 19.

Tensions between the two countries escalated after Filipino sailors caught eight Chinese fishing vessels on the shoal, which the Chinese government took as an aggressive act. China positioned its surveillance ships between Philippine sailors and the suspected illegal fishermen. China claimed no illegal fishing took place as the fishermen were within Chinese waters.

The Philippines, meanwhile, continues to push for its claims within the West Philippine Sea, including Scarborough Shoal.

The two governments have been exerting efforts to ease the tension.

But this has led to an unfortunate turn of events as Trillanes, who was appointed by President Benigno Aquino III as “back-channel negotiator” working independently of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), was accused of working for China by Enrile.

The bickering between the two senators stemmed from a debate on a bill seeking to divide the province of Camarines Sur. Trillanes had called Enrile a “lackey” of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, whose allies want to carve a new province to be called Nueva Camarines.

Enrile retaliated, disclosing Philippine ambassador to China Sonia Brady’s notes implying that Trillanes was working for China amid the dispute over Scarborough Shoal.

Quoting Brady, Enrile cited an instance wherein Trillanes purportedly said that no one in the Philippines cared for Scarborough Shoal.

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The Varsitarian sought comments from Brady but her staff said she was recuperating from health problems.

Prior to Enrile’s disclosure of Brady’s notes in the Senate session hall last Sept. 19, Trillanes warned the Senate President against revealing sensitive information on foreign relations and national security, to which Enrile retorted: “Do not teach me about proceedings.”

Former senator Aquilino Pimentel, Jr. agreed with the younger senator, saying that Enrile shouldn’t have disclosed Brady’s report.

“It’s part of diplomatic negotiation protocols,” he said.

Enrile also questioned Trillanes for claiming credit for easing tensions between the two countries, as well as his qualifications as a negotiator.

Trillanes meanwhile slammed DFA Secretary Albert del Rosario for “committing treason” over the latter’s cooperation with US, which he said was worsening tensions with China.

But Del Rosario said his efforts to resolve the dispute with China were being torpedoed by Trillanes.

“[W]hile back-channeling has its purpose, in our case it’s doing more harm than good. It is important that we speak with one voice on this matter,” Del Rosario said in an interview with the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

‘He was only a messenger’

Trillanes’ chief of staff Reynaldo Robles clarified that the senator’s role during the negotiations was only limited to being a messenger.

“It must be emphasized that during the said negotiation, every negotiation, every decision arrived at were made by President Aquino himself,” he said in an e-mail to the Varsitarian.

Robles added that Aquino himself had admitted that Trillanes’ efforts gave way to the easing of tensions at Scarborough shoal.

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He also believes that Trillanes was the right man for back-channeling negotiations, citing the latter’s military experience, which involved “face-to-face encounters with Chinese vessels in Scarborough during his sea duty stint when he was still in the Navy.”

“This actual exposure in Scarborough [shoal] helped him better appreciate the tactical conditions, as well as the psyche and condition of the sailors of both sides,” he said.

On claims that Trillanes injected himself in the negotiations, it was Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, Jr. who encouraged the senator to be a back-channel negotiator.

“Ochoa brought up the issue during a social gathering in Malacañang last May. Moreover, President Benigno Aquino III gave the assignment to the senator verbally,” he said.

Two claims

The Philippines’ claim for Scarborough Shoal is based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos), particularly the “exclusive economic zone” which gives a state the right over resources. It ranges from the seaward edge of the country’s territorial sea up to 200 nautical miles from the coast.

China claims that Scarborough Shoal has historically been part of its history. Andre Arnold T. Santiago

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