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Sisyphus’ Lament

‘Rock Solid’: ‘The Lord of the Rings’ of law

The book “Rock Solid,” by veteran Supreme Court watcher Marites Vitug, is “The Lord of the Rings” of legal journalism. Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio towers as its Gandalf, our maritime arbitration’s architect. Luminaries such as then Solicitors General Francis Jardeleza and Florin Hilbay and then Deputy Executive Secretary Menardo Guevarra play Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli.

“Rock Solid” vividly captures the drama underlying the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea’s (Unclos) technical rules.

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The drama escalated in 2009, when China submitted its “nine-dash line” to the United Nations, claiming practically the entire West Philippine Sea.

China has an Unclos reservation excluding arbitration on sea boundaries. But Carpio’s intellectual sleight of hand was to push arbitration unrelated to sea boundaries or ownership of disputed “features” such as Scarborough or Panatag Shoal.

Instead, Carpio proposed arbitration on how these are categorized, whether “islands” or mere rocks.

There is a big difference. A bona fide island generates an “exclusive economic zone” (EEZ) of 200 nautical miles (370 kilometers) from its “baselines.” Rocks generate only a 12-mile “territorial sea,” or none if submerged at high tide.

Thus, it was a legal game changer when the Philippines won the arbitration on July 12, 2016, and none of the features were considered islands. No matter who owned them, none of the newly recognized rocks could generate counter-EEZs that cut into our or our neighbors’ EEZs.

Crucially, this undermined any possible basis for the nine-dash line.

This outline of Carpio’s cunning unlocks “Rock Solid’s” wealth of detail.

An island, for example, must support human habitation on its own. Taiwan thus flew journalists to Itu Aba, the largest feature which it occupies, and gave them water from a local well and poultry from a local farm.

Our US lawyers countered that Itu Aba’s population was solely the staff of a military base, supported by desalination plants and supplies flown from Taiwan. It was a reef that did not even have natural topsoil.

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One lawyer spoke Mandarin and retrieved the actual studies cited in Taiwan’s brief. These proved that even Taiwanese scientists concluded that Itu Aba’s water was too salty to drink—a legal slam dunk.

When Itu Aba failed the island test, it was unlikely the smaller features could be islands.

“Rock Solid” presents many other arguments—such as why artificial islands cannot generate EEZs—and their rich supporting detail.

The first half is tedious, capturing the pace of asserting maritime claims over decades. The seemingly endless series of diplomatic protests highlights familiar names.

Former senator Rodolfo Biazon was a junior Marine officer in 1968 leading small squads to occupy various features. The late representative Roilo Golez was a naval officer ferrying supplies.

Sen. Loren Legarda and Inquirer columnist Ceres Doyo joined the first journalists flown to Pag-asa, in the Spratly or Kalayaan Islands, in 1991. Then Foreign Undersecretary Rodolfo Severino, father of acclaimed documentarist Howie Severino, led a heated 1995 diplomatic mission to Beijing.

“Rock Solid” documents decades of patient courage, from soldiers in the rusting BRP Sierra Madre grounded on Ayungin Shoal, to fishermen who testified to the tribunal about being barred from Scarborough and losing their livelihood.

It caps how my idol Vitug immortalizes our greatest legal triumph’s backstories.

One hopes more authors expound on other perspectives, such as those of lead lawyers Jardeleza and Hilbay and the countless diplomats who laid the groundwork.

But, in this saga, who is Bilbo?

He may be one of Vitug’s young readers, now connecting the dots of complex issues that arose before he was born.

Carpio emphasizes that the West Philippine Sea must be an intergenerational responsibility. “Rock Solid” is, thus, a patriotic gift Carpio’s peers must place on the bookshelves of every idealistic young lawyer, foreign service officer and military cadet.

React: [email protected], Twitter @oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan. This column does not represent the opinion of organizations with which the author is affiliated.

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