Two years after victory, why does ‘Philippines v. China’ feel like a defeat?

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In Marites Dañguilan Vitug’s “Rock Solid,” Filipinos are called to sustain a hard-earned victory despite the Philippine government’s defeatist stance against China.

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — It took decades for the Philippines to stand up against China. It may also take decades to understand that this victory is ours.

This is the subliminal message running through Marites Dañguilan Vitug’s “Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China” (Bughaw, 2018). Two years from the victorious ruling that invalidated China’s overreaching claims over Philippine maritime zones, “Rock Solid” is the first comprehensive attempt to trace the origins of the dispute and the sequence of events that led us here: a country armed with a weapon it hesitates to use.

Vitug, a veteran journalist, has a gift for elevating journalistic narrative to its fullest potential — one that affects, immerses, and illuminates. In “Rock Solid,” she takes the reader on a roller-coaster of emotions: indignation, anger, compassion, love, hope, as she tells the story of how the Philippines mustered the strength to hold a superpower to account for its aggressions. She frames her narrative — supported by in-depth research — mainly through the lens of those who believed and had much at stake in the Philippine case: ingenuous military officers, steadfast government officials, a brilliant judge, island residents, fisherfolk, advocate-lawyers, and the like.

Marites Vitug Author Photo.jpg Marites Vitug. Photo courtesy of the ATENEO DE MANILA UNIVERSITY PRESS

Divided into four parts, the book starts with the day the victorious ruling was released, then takes us back to the era of Ferdinand Marcos, who first conceived of the mission to occupy parts of the scattered Spratly Islands. It also reveals sparks of Filipino ingenuity, the foremost being the grounding of a Philippine ship to claim occupation of Ayungin Shoal. The book also points out how the U.S., ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) and the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) affected the case, and probes deep into the minds of those who fiercely advocated for it.

Finally, the book goes into what the case meant — what the decision contains, how it provides leverage for a peaceful resolution of maritime disputes, and why Duterte’s policy towards the win is “self-flagellating,” potentially disregarding what is in fact a decades-old effort to stand up to a bully.

“Rock Solid” is an essential read for anyone who professes to love the Philippines and its people. While painful to read at times for its depiction of China’s aggressiveness, its destruction of the marine environment, and the helplessness of our own people, it still ends on a hopeful yet cautious note.

Coming from her research work, Vitug expressed how the Philippines is in dire need of strategic, long-term thinking as well as good leaders unburdened with self-interests. Here’s how “Rock Solid” prescribes a path for “sailing forward” with the historic victory, as stated by some of its main actors:

Recognize vulnerability and use it to your advantage.

In Chapter 14, “Fighting a Bully,” Vitug wrote that it was under former foreign affairs secretary Albert Del Rosario’s watch that “Philippine diplomacy used a new tool in the diplomatic arsenal: litigation.” The years preceding the move to file a case against China were years akin to talking to a wall, as narrated repeatedly in “Rock Solid.” Vitug quotes Del Rosario in a T.V. interview: “[…] every bilateral meeting… unfortunately [leads China saying to you], ‘We have indisputable sovereignty over the entire South China Sea.”

While China talked and the Philippines listened, the former continued occupying and fortifying areas such as Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal, and continued using aggressive force to prevent fisherfolk, companies, and navy officers from passing through local waters. China also used its reach and power over other States to influence public perception about its “creeping imposition” over the areas it claims.

There is absolutely no basis for China’s nine-dash claim over the South China Sea, as already decided upon by a credible international tribunal; so why do we still negotiate with them on the basis of a fictional claim?

Thus the Philippines’ move to “internationalize” the issue and let the world know about China’s illegal actions as well as its delaying tactics. “It was a challenging time at the DFA,” Vitug wrote, “as Del Rosario tried to balance negotiations with litigation.”

Highlight the story of how we fought for our rights, and won.

“Rock Solid” is ultimately an attempt to amplify the Philippine victory: that the rule of law prevails over the sea and takes no one, not even a megapower like China, as an exception. While writing the book meant Vitug had to “bring a legal battle to life,” the book itself opens the national conversation in response to the question: “Are we telling our narrative properly?”

In many ways, “Rock Solid” is a strong rebuttal to the Duterte administration’s soft stance against China, given its long history of consolidating power by trampling on the rights of “smaller” nations. There is absolutely no basis for China’s nine-dash claim over the South China Sea, as already decided upon by a credible international tribunal; so why do we still negotiate with them on the basis of a fictional claim?

Understand that the dispute, as well as the ruling, involves an “inter-generational struggle.”

Vitug, citing an interview in Chapter 13 (“Carpio’s Voyage”) of the book, quotes Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio: “This generation will get the ruling. The next generation will convince the world [to support us], and maybe the generation after that will convince China.” The original quote continues: “But we should not expect instant gratification here if we win this ruling.”

Carpio laid out the initial strategy for filing a case against China. In Chapter 13, Vitug paints how the idea bloomed inside the justice’s mind after handling cases that dealt with international law, namely Republic v. Sandiganbayan (2003) and Magallona v. Ermita (2011).

While the account is fascinating, readers are steered towards Carpio’s long view: Getting a favorable ruling is only the first step. The next might be to convince ourselves that we won, and that we must assert this victory.