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Asserting ownership of the ‘luli’ isles

Nobody at the book launch of “Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won its Maritime Case Against China” explained the title of this groundbreaking work on the “West Philippine Sea” dispute. The supposition is that “rock solid” refers to the case submitted by the Philippine government to the Permanent Court of Arbitration to establish “ownership” over the islands, shoals, reefs and rocks of the Spratly Islands.

But as author Marites Dañguilan Vitug shows, the case documents may have provided irrefutable proof of the country’s sovereignty over these specks of rock, sand, earth and coral in the middle of the South China Sea (or WPS in the view of the Philippine government), but in asserting its claim, the Philippine government’s stance has been far from “rock solid.”

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Vitug relates that, in a conversation with a naval officer, he referred to these ocean features as the “luli” islands, for “lulubog, lilitaw” (sinking and rising), describing how some isles would disappear at high tide. In many ways, it also describes the waxing and waning of the Philippine position on the islands.

From the start, she recounts, Philippine assertion of its claim had always been subject to signals emanating from our giant neighbor. Discussions on strategy and policy would often be tempered by considerations of how China would react.

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President Duterte may be the most egregious so far in his show of sycophancy toward Chinese officialdom. But every president in recent memory, including PNoy who made the decision to sue China, has had to look over his or her shoulder to gauge China’s response.

Certainly, the most compelling, fascinating part of the book comes at the very start, where Vitug shines the spotlight first on the conference room of the Foley Hoag law firm in Washington, then on the Office of the Solicitor General in Makati, thence on former president Benigno Aquino III’s residence in Quezon City, and finally on The Hague from where the Permanent Court of Arbitration emailed the final verdict on the case.

Most poignant is the scene painted by Vitug on how PNoy received the news: alone in his home, reading the summary of the award and feeling “happy and pleased,” then calling up the officials closest to the dispute to convey his congratulations and praise. “Soon after,” writes Vitug, “his mobile phone lit up with congratulatory text messages.”

We all know what followed and what is taking place to this day. Vitug recounts the first press conference called by then foreign secretary Perfecto Yasay in reaction to the legal victory. Yasay read a brief statement, glum-faced and refusing to take questions, delivering, said a foreign TV journalist, something more akin to a eulogy.

Vitug relates the legal and technical (and environmental) issues included in the Philippine brief, including testimonies from fishermen who had plied their trade in the waters of and around Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal) for many years until 2012, when the Chinese Navy imposed sanctions.

From establishing the environmental impact of construction work done on the islands China had encroached on, to testimonies of the human cost of Chinese interference, the country’s case was clearly and succinctly made. It is a shame we have not been able to build upon it to establish further action, or simply to assert our rights.

By Vitug’s accounting, the Philippine response to Chinese aggression on the Spratlys has been spotty, haphazard and of little impact on China’s expansionist dreams. And, under Duterte, writes Vitug, the government “took a defeatist, self-flagellating stance despite the immensity of what the Philippines had gained from the ruling: a maritime area larger than the total land area of the Philippines, rich in resources.”

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It is an embarrassing spectacle. And as the latest opinion polls show, the Filipino public does not look kindly on officials who do not stand up for the country, especially since, in its “David vs Goliath” legal battle with China, the Philippines scored an impressive, historically important victory not just for our own little collection of islands, but for all “little countries” as well.

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TAGS: China, Philippines, Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won its Maritime Case Against China, Rodrigo Duterte, South China Sea, Spratly Island, West Philippine Sea
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