The Philippines yesterday said that a politician who was once jailed for coup plotting had been in secret talks with China over a territorial row, as the tactic appeared to backfire amid bitter infighting.
Philippine Senator Antonio Trillanes had been “authorized” to hold back-channel talks with Chinese officials to settle a row over competing claims to the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, a spokesman for Philippine President Benigno Aquino III said.
Taiwan also lays claim to the shoal, which it calls Huangyan Island (黃岩島).
However the appointment caused a deep rift with Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, who had been officially in charge of negotiations with China and was excluded from the back-channel talks.
Trillanes claimed he had been responsible for easing tensions with China after the dispute erupted in April and accused the country’s top diplomat 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 told Agence France-Presse yesterday, repeating a claim he made on local radio.
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 fall-out at a press conference yesterday.
“I can categorically say that the secretary of foreign affairs has the trust and confidence of the president,” Lacierda told reporters.
Lacierda also read a statement from Trillanes saying the improved situation concerning the Scarborough Shoal was due to “collaborative efforts” with Del Rosario.
However, he said he could not answer questions as to why Aquino had appointed Trillanes as an extra negotiator.
The dispute between China and the Philippines began in April, when ships from both nations engaged in a stand-off at the Scarborough Shoal. The shoal is an outcrop of rocks about 230km from the western coast of the Philippines’ main island of Luzon.
A former navy lieutenant, Trillanes was among the leaders of two failed coups in 2003 and 2007 against then-Philippine president Gloria 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.