MANILA, Philippines–Following an explosive debate in the Senate on Wednesday, officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs kept mum on back-channeling efforts to resolve the country’s dispute with China over the West Philippine Sea but reiterated the need for a united government line to win in the territorial row.
Ordered to be silent on the issue, DFA officials declined to give direct comments on efforts led behind its back by former mutiny leader and now Senator Antonio Trillanes, even as they emphasized that the Philippines should pursue a singular foreign policy.
The DFA also begged off when asked to comment on supposed notes of ailing Philippine Ambassador to China Sonia Brady, read by Senator Juan Ponce Enrile in a public dressing-down of the young Senator on Wednesday.
In the notes as read by Enrile, Brady said Trillanes accused Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario of “committing treason” and accusing him of sparking a war by dragging the United States into the dispute.
But Del Rosario was “upbeat and relaxed” as he went about his daily diplomatic business, according to his spokesperson Raul Hernandez, DFA Assistant Secretary.
“I’m gagged, but I’m fine,” Del Rosario told reporters while aboard his car on his way out of the DFA headquarters in Pasay City yesterday. He begged off further comment, saying he was running late for an appointment.
Asserting DFA’s one-government approach to diplomacy, Hernandez said in a separate interview: “I cannot really say anything else except what has already been given to you, that the DFA executes the foreign policy of the President and that we are not dignifying those who are working to divide us.”
“We should have one policy, one team in promoting our national interests in the West Philippine Sea,” said Hernandez, without making particular references.
When asked about Brady’s condition in Beijing, Hernandez said the envoy still has some difficulty speaking but continues to recover well and is expected to be flown back home “very, very soon.”
While conceding that back-channeling is “a common practice in the affairs of nations,” Hernandez repeatedly refused to make further comments when asked about the Trillanes-led effort.
“Let’s not go into that for the time being. Maybe we could discuss that some other time. Let’s give them a break for the time being,” he said.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila has yet to give any comment on the issue.
Hernandez also did not give details on the state of Philippine-China talks about the dispute, except to confirm that three Chinese government ships remain at the resource-rich Panatag Shoal off Zambales, a rock formation being claimed by both countries.
He added that President Aquino has not ordered any Philippine ship to return to the shoal even while the Philippine Coast Guard has already expressed readiness to return to the waters. Philippine vessels pulled out of the shoal in June amid bad weather, following two months of a tense standoff with China.
Hernandez said the DFA was also helping Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II arrange meetings with high-level Chinese officials when he goes to Nanning, China this week as the country’s special envoy to the 9th China-Asean (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Expo.
Top trade and diplomatic officials will join Roxas in the trip, where the country hopes to forward the Philippines’ interests in trade, investment and tourism, Hernandez said.
Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping is expected to lead Chinese officials in hosting the annual event to be held from Sept. 21 to 25. Top government officials from other Southeast Asian countries are expected to attend.
Asked if Roxas might also hold discussions with Chinese officials about the sea dispute, Hernandez said: – “I am not sure if that is part of things that he’s prepared to discuss in China because this event is a trade, investment and tourism event. He’s trip there is focused on that.”
Del Rosario is expected to be at the United Nations General Assembly in New York on the same week. And when asked if the foreign secretary will be meeting Chinese leaders on the sidelines, Hernandez said any international gathering is an opportunity for meetings.
“I don’t know his schedule yet but representatives of different countries will be there, so if there is a chance, opportunities for them, then it could be a possibility,” said Hernandez.