Philippines' hollow victory over China

Philippines' hollow victory over China

An airstrip, structures and buildings on China's man-made Subi Reef in the Spratly chain of islands in the South China Sea are seen from a C-130 transport plane of the Philippines Air Force. (File photo via AP)
An airstrip, structures and buildings on China's man-made Subi Reef in the Spratly chain of islands in the South China Sea are seen from a C-130 transport plane of the Philippines Air Force. (File photo via AP)

In an Asean multilateral meeting in Cambodia in 2012, the Philippines' then-foreign secretary, Alberto del Rosario, found himself in an uncomfortable diplomatic situation.

Knowing he would bring up China's militarisation 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," Mr 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."

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 behaviour 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 a historic one. 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' favour 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 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," said veteran Filipino journalist and 'Rock Solid' author Marites Danguilan Vitug.

Ms Vitug's book mixes storytelling skills with legal issues, diplomacy and politics to churn out a juicy thriller peppered with drama and human interest. She did some 70 interviews, travelled to Pag-asa ('hope') 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 recognised 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 Ms 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 Rodrigo 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 Ms Vitug.

Below are excerpts from a chat with 'Rock Solid' author Marites Danguilan Vitug.

What was your biggest 'aha' moment in the book?

I said, "My God, the Philippines is one of the top ten countries in the world with the longest coastline, we are number 5!". I never realised that until I was doing the book, that we are a maritime nation, but our policies are land-based. How do we secure 36,000 kilometers of coastline? We have a longer coastline than Japan and the US.

Philippine governments, since the sixties, have looked at what the country considers Philippine territory and acted accordingly. It bypassed politics. What has happened since the Benigno Aquino government (which filed the lawsuit)?

When Mr Duterte became president, he chose to be pragmatic. He shelved the ruling, saying that the Philippines needs the help of China to grow the economy and to reduce poverty. That means we need more Chinese investments, trade, tourism, and also that was fueled by his dislike of President Obama. But as mayor of Davao, he was quite comfortable already with looking towards China as an ally and a friend. So that's why when the ruling came, there was not even time for the Filipinos to really discuss it in terms of national conversations.

How do you explain this to the average Filipino? The government presented it as a very simplistic issue, meaning the options were only do Filipinos want to go to war with China, or not.

Correct, it's a false dilemma. I think that's part of the strategy of the Duterte government, to downplay the victory. But when I was doing the book, I looked at the national surveys on how Filipinos perceived China.

Of course it was very low, China is one of the least trusted countries. There was an earlier survey about the attitude of Filipinos towards the West Philippine Sea. The finding was majority of respondents wanted the Philippine government, already under Mr Duterte, to assert Philippine sovereignty.

But if you look at the overall survey wherein the polling outfit asks what are your concerns, it's mainly economic -- food on the table, jobs, inflation -- and then the security issue and West Philippine Sea is down below, out of a top 10 maybe number 8.

The challenge is still for the public to understand what this is all about, because sometimes it can be too technical. That was my challenge (in writing) about ownership, territory, sovereign rights... The biggest gain from the ruling is that it has shrunk the disputed area in the South China Sea.

How do you connect the Spratlys to very daily concerns?

The closest thing that Filipinos can relate to is the issue with the fishermen. Because it's so clear, there are videos of Chinese harassing fishermen, and there are videos of Chinese fishermen getting our giant clams. So that's the easiest. That's the most visual, and the most direct.

There's an apparent disconnect with the government being not so hot on the US and saying China (instead). Public sentiment is pretty much distrustful of China, much more positive towards the US.

Yes, and Japan. That's right, and this has become an issue of patriotism. Recently, people were calling Mr Duterte, a few maybe, [saying] "that's treason".

Following the Putin-Trump incident in Finland, I noticed some in social media and traditional media are saying this can also be treason because while Mr Trump -- it was very direct, Russia interfered in their elections. Here China has taken over reefs, rocks which are within the Philippines' EEZ. So there's already that discussion.

What lessons are there from the Philippines' story?

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.

So the great equaliser, in fact. Then the other lesson, perhaps not lesson but maybe benefit, is that now other claimant countries can enter into arrangements with the Philippines, with other claimant countries, to define sea boundaries, with the ruling that the Nine-Dash Line is no longer valid; it was deemed illegal.

Johanna Son, a Filipino journalist who follows regional affairs, is Bangkok-based editor of the Reporting Asean series.

Johanna Son

Filipina journalist

Johanna Son, based in Bangkok, is a Filipina journalist and editor who covers issues relating to Asia and Asean. She has been based in Thailand for 16 years.

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