One thing that has become clearly obvious in reading the astonishing tale of China Crisis this week is that very few, if any, people in this country actually grasp the enormity of the disaster. The credibility of the Philippines as a sovereign nation has been utterly shattered, and the blame for it, whether it was done through well-meaning naiveté, arrogant incompetence, or actual malice, falls entirely on the President of the (Former) Republic of the Philippines.
The motive is actually irrelevant. For what it’s worth, I’ll choose to regard the President as a sincere dolt doing what he honestly believed was the best for the country, because at this point condemning him for immature self-aggrandizement or more nefarious intentions would just be piling on; the consequences of his decisions are their own indictment.
According to Senator Sonny F. Trillanes, he was enlisted by the President by way of Executive Secretary Ochoa to serve as the clandestine negotiator with the Chinese regarding the standoff over the Scarborough Shoal. The Office of the President, through spokesman Ed Lacierda, refuted this, saying it was Trillanes who approached them and lobbied for the job; Trillanes has all the credibility of an e-mail from Nigeria, so this latter explanation made more sense. The President, however, explained on Friday that ‘what really happened’ was that
“Senator Trillanes called me up and he was in China at that time. He was approached (and) he was asked on the possibility of him serving as backchannel negotiator,” the President said.
Cazart! In every story, there’s one side and the other side, and somewhere in the middle, the truth. We now have three versions of the story:
- The President recruited Trillanes.
- Trillanes recruited himself.
- The Chinese recruited Trillanes, which is the official version of the story, at least for now.
Of the three, the last one makes very little sense, except as a part of one very disturbing scenario. The Chinese, whatever else they may be, are not stupid or ill-informed about their actual or potential friends and enemies; they undoubtedly have a very efficient process for gathering information about the important issues and personalities in the Philippines, and know exactly who Sonny F. Trillanes is, what influence he has (or does not have), and what they would stand to gain or lose by dealing with him. This is, after all, the civilization that gave the world The Art of War. Everything about Trillanes offends some basic characteristic of the Chinese perspective: His penchant for creating instability, the short half-life of his loyalties within the Philippine political framework, his very junior position within the political power structure, and his mayabang personality.
Under ordinary circumstances – ordinary circumstances being a sincere intention on the part of the Chinese to negotiate some sort of mutually-palatable solution to the South China Sea standoff – Sonny F. Trillanes would be pretty near the bottom of the list of people the diplomatically-sensitive, risk-averse Chinese government would ask to represent the Philippines’ position. Would be, unless the circumstances are not ordinary, and the Chinese determined the most productive outcome for them would be to sow discord within the Philippine government and destroy anything remaining that this country could use to back its position, weak though that already is.
If the ‘official’ version is what happened – and we’ll assume that it did, because the President said so – then either one of two things resulted from the Leader of the (Former) Republic of the Philippines’ decision: Either Trillanes lied to him and he bought it without checking out the story he was being told, or he walked right into a trap the Chinese set for him. Either of which – and the dire consequences that followed – could have been avoided if he had used a single, simple word that he has already demonstrated he has in his vocabulary:
As a result of his not being able to say that, the credibility of the country is ruined. Using a “backchannel negotiator” of any sort undermines the previously-expressed diplomatic position – a position expressed quite stridently and often, actually – that the claims and activities of concerned parties in the South China Sea should be settled according to international conventions. It also undermines the objective of the ASEAN to develop and adhere to a united policy on the South China Sea. The Philippines’ willingness to “go behind everyone’s back” is a signal to the regional neighbors that this country is an unreliable partner; a perception that was in no way disabused by the President’s talking-out-of-school gaffe following the recent APEC meeting, which earned him a stern public rebuke from the government of Singapore. On a larger scale, the discord and lack of united policy in the Philippine government has now been made very public, meaning that any country’s engagement with the Philippines on any matter whatsoever will be viewed with a great deal of skepticism, and other sovereign parties will be inclined to dictate, rather than negotiate, agreements with this country. The President himself has ensured this will happen by inexplicably declaring that Trillanes – despite the controversy that has erupted, and despite the latter’s now being a complete laughingstock in this country – is, for the time being, still the “backchannel negotiator” while sending Mar Roxas as a messenger to Beijing. It rather defeats the purpose of having a clandestine envoy if he is publicly acknowledged, and then (publicly) bypassed in favor of an official whose portfolio does not include foreign affairs.
In trying to save face, the President has pointed out that, subsequent to Trillanes’ “discussions” with the Chinese, tensions on the Scarborough Shoal were reduced by the departure of a couple dozen Chinese ships in the area. What reduction of tension that actually represents is a mystery because in the time since, the Chinese officially established a city over part of the Philippines’ claims in the South China Sea, and the President was snubbed by his Chinese counterpart at the APEC meeting. The Offices of the President and the Secretary of Foreign Affairs bravely tried to pass off that latter slight as a “scheduling conflict”, but in light of what has been revealed this week that is an even more ludicrous explanation now than when it was first offered. Tensions are eased by national leaders getting together for a few moments to exchange handshakes and pleasantries; “tell him I’m busy” is not a sign that one of those feels it is important or desirable to talk to the other.
What should be of immediate concern to the government and frankly, the ordinary Filipino whose lesson about the ramifications of making poor choices at the ballot box is only beginning, is the impact this will have on the country’s tenuous economy. The recent ‘threat’ by business tycoon Manny Pangilinan to withdraw from the Philippines should not be taken lightly, or as the casual frustration of just an individual. MVP is a smart businessman who does not make rash decisions, and would not even consider – let alone utter publicly – such an earth-shattering idea if there was not a great deal of information and thought behind it; what those inputs might be, we can only imagine, but they cannot be good for the country if they’ve led one of the Philippines’ top investors and biggest employers to even idly consider physically abandoning the nation. The fact that he even brought it up is, at a minimum, a signal to everyone else – foreign or native – doing or thinking about doing business here to seriously reconsider it.
This is one calamity the country, particularly under the direction of the government who caused the disaster, is not going to easily recover from, if that is even possible, which at this point seems unlikely. A friend of mine who spent some time with the President once described him as, “the sort of friend you keep around because he’s always got beer money.” Pity to think that may be the best the whole country can now aspire to being; when a country cannot be regarded as a peer by other nations, it ceases to be a sovereign nation in fact if not in name – a hanger-on in the world community, treated with kind indulgence, perhaps, when it’s to others’ benefit to do so, but taken no more seriously in running the global household than the family dog.