Philippine’s hollow victory over China
FILIPINO WORLDVIEW - Roberto R. Romulo (The Philippine Star) - August 24, 2018 - 12:00am

I invited Johanna Son, a Filipino journalist who follows regional affairs and a Bangkok-based editor of the Reporting ASEAN series. This is reprinted with permission from the Bangkok Post which published it on Aug. 20.

By Johanna Son


In an ASEAN multilateral meeting in Cambodia in 2012, the Philippines’ then-foreign secretary, Alberto del Rosario, found himself in an uncomfortable, undiplomatic situation.

Knowing he would bring up China’s militarization of the Spratlys in the South China Sea, Cambodia – ASEAN chair and China ally – revised the agenda so that he would get little, or no, audience. “ I was scheduled to speak during lunch which was normally reserved for bilateral meetings so I was virtually talking to myself,” Del Rosario says in the just-released book, ‘Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China’.

He resorted to Plan B, asking then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to end her talk with a mention of the South China Sea so that he could then speak up. “After she spoke, I quickly began to deliver my message on the South China Sea. Within a minute, to everyone’s surprise, my microphone was suddenly shut off. I said to myself, I can either protest, be silent, or stand and continue to speak. I stood and continued to speak. Ultimately they turned the microphone back on.”

The year 2012 was ASEAN’s most embarrassing one. It failed to issue a joint communique due to divisions among its 10 members on expressing concern about China’s behavior in the South China Sea, including its occupation of Scarborough Shoal – which lies well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The country had a lighthouse there; its Navy used the shoal for gunfire practice in the sixties.

The year 2013 was historic. After testy exchanges with China since 1995 and seemingly countless notes verbales, Manila filed a lawsuit before an international tribunal to challenge China’s creeping occupation. The Philippines went for the jugular - the Nine-dash Line that Beijing invokes as historical, legal basis for its claims.

In 2016, the Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruled in the Philippines’ favor in a decision whose global legal and geopolitical implications have yet to fully play out.

The Philippines submitted more than 3,000 pages of documents, with 10 volumes of annexes from maps to nautical charts dating back to the 1600s, cables between China and the Philippines, minutes of meetings from 1995 to 2012 and intelligence reports, many of them marked ‘secret’. “It was almost like I was there myself,” veteran Filipino journalist and ‘Rock Solid’ author Marites Danguilan Vitug said.

Vitug’s book mixes storytelling skills with legalese, diplomatese, and politics to churn out a juicy  thriller peppered with drama and human interest. Vitug did some 70 interviews, travelled to Pag-asa island in what Manila calls the West Philippine Sea, and coastal Masinloc town to talk to fishermen whose affidavits about Chinese incursions had been submitted to the PCA. She went to The Hague, and the United States.

Heaps of primary-source documents, disclosing barbed exchanges between Chinese and Filipino diplomats, were on the PCA website.

Accounts of a tense meeting in Beijing in May 1997 are eye-opening. China’s Vice Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan met Philippine Foreign Undersecretary Rodolfo Severino after the Philippine Navy planted national flags between the protruding rocks of Scarborough Shoal – 220 kilometres from the country’s Zambales province. This was soon after Beijing said its sovereignty had been recognized by a China-led group of amateur radio buffs used “China’s” radio frequency 3,000 km from its mainland.

Upset that Filipino legislators hoisted a flag on Scarborough Shoal, China asked the Philippines to “rectify its mistakes”. “Then Tang exploded,” writes Vitug, calling this one among meetings that had “China sucking the air out of the room”.

“Tang said: ‘Get out!’ (of Scarborough Shoal) as translated by his interpreter in English. I recall that his tone was agitated. I was stunned to hear such undiplomatic language from a high Chinese official. Severino was cool. He replied ‘Let’s not use such words. Or such language shouldn’t be used in this discussion,” recalled a Filipino diplomat, Anacleto Rei Lacanilao III. ”He said this an even tone with his modulated voice and relaxed manner. . . I learned a lot about diplomacy that day.”

After China in 1995 took over Mischief Reef, 250 km from the nearest province of Palawan, Manila was seeing how two years later, it was moving in on Scarborough Shoal, whose above-sea-level features Beijing sought to expand to support its claims. This building spree – creating land if there was none - was blasted to smithereens by the PCA. 

The verdict is nothing short of seismic in the arena of international law and diplomacy, though it is a victory on hold since President Duterte’s government has done little with it. This is the first time China was brought to an international court. It was the Philippines’ first time to seek international arbitration against another nation. Among the claimants in the Spratlys, the country of 105 million people was the one that has ‘lost’ the most features to China over the decades. But it is not just a Philippine story.

The lesson? “That a court of law is where a small country can fight a hegemon. It’s not the battlefield, it’s not in the waters of the South China Sea, it’s in an international court of law,” said Vitug.

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