Sisyphus’ Lament

China ruling and our sense of national destiny

SINGAPORE—International media portray the historic ruling on the West Philippine Sea as a stunning defeat for China but not necessarily our great victory. Are we an afterthought in our own case?

We won the international legal victory of the century. It was like a boxing match where an arbitral tribunal constituted under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (Unclos) gave us every round.


The Supreme Court’s intellectual juggernauts played key roles. It was Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio’s stroke of genius to reframe the claim from sovereignty over land to entitlement to water, as chronicled in Prof. Solita Monsod’s columns. This legal jujitsu allowed the case to be filed.

The tribunal’s jurisdictional debate was fascinating, even before the actual case. It could not set maritime borders but ruled there was no possible border dispute given how far the Spratly Islands are from China’s coast. It cannot rule over military activities, but quoted China’s pronouncements that its reclamation and building artificial islands are not military in nature.


The tribunal powerfully ruled that China’s “nine-dash line” has no legal basis and cannot encroach on our 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone. Further, the uninhabitable reefs in the case cannot generate rights, and neither can artificial islands built over them.

Thus, the tribunal ruled that it was illegal for China to interfere with fishermen, build artificial islands, destroy coral reefs and prevent the extensive harvest of endangered sea turtles.

The case was filed by then solicitor general, now Supreme Court Justice Francis Jardeleza. When former president Benigno Aquino III called to congratulate him, he was still wondering what made Aquino finally order the legal charge in January 2013. Aquino previously said it was one of his most difficult decisions. Jardeleza asked him to write his memoirs sooner rather than later.

The landmark decision is only the beginning of a long process as there is no global police to enforce it. We know how authoritative a legal document is, even Ned Stark’s hands, in Cersei Lannister’s throne room. China has one of the world’s largest militaries and is our second largest trading partner.

I was struck by how none of my foreign friends congratulated me on our legal grand slam. I hoped for another Edsa moment where we might stand proud on the global stage. Yet a part of me feels we played Thor where Loki stole the show.

I wonder if Carpio and Jardeleza will pass the torch to a generation of leaders with the conviction that we are a great country capable of rallying our peers to a righteous cause, instead of perpetually conceding that we are too poor, too lacking in arms and too uninfluential to do more than try to keep from being swept away in the gravitational wake of larger bodies. A cynic might lament that our foreign policy revolves around groveling each time an overseas Filipino worker does something stupid.

But how much kinship have we built with our neighbors in everyday public opinion? The Association of Southeast Asian Nations could not even release a statement. Vietnam has been vocal and said it welcomes the decision, and Vietnamese prominently staged a small rally beside Manila Bay after its release. However, our perceptions may be stuck in the movie “Full Metal Jacket.” India called for respect for Unclos, with half its trade passing through the disputed area, but our perceptions are likewise stuck in the 5/6 “Bumbay” stereotype and bad jokes about odor.


With Indonesia and Malaysia, we outwardly empathize more with the Nice truck attack than the terrorist attacks in Medina, Islam’s second holiest site, and other cities as Ramadan ended. We did not draw a reaction from East Timor, our region’s other Catholic nation. It is struggling with its own maritime dispute against Australia, which incidentally explicitly told China to abide by the decision even if we booed a New Zealand basketball team’s haka in Manila. We might not appreciate that it was Japan reiterating the decision to China in last Friday’s Asia-Europe forum.

Singapore urged “all parties to fully respect legal and diplomatic processes” and the Straits Times’ opinion editor published an op-ed yesterday depicting China as a playground bully. But I was also struck by “Hotel,” a five-hour play depicting Singapore’s history, which was presented during its 50th founding anniversary last year. The final scene introduces a Filipino bellboy and a Filipino nurse who cleans out sheets along with mainland Chinese housekeeping staff and an Australian chef. Years ago, a National Day play featured a Filipino nurse egged for special service by her grandfatherly patient.

Now that we must rally international support, one wonders how much we know of our own friends and how they perceive us. One wonders if we likewise appreciate China’s internal workings and its Century of Humiliation, a wound unmistakable to anyone who has visited the ruins of Yuánmíng Yuán in Beijing, the Qing dynasty palace looted and razed by British and French soldiers in 1860.

We cheer each time any one 1/64th Filipino wins an international boxing match, singing contest or beauty pageant. But where Chinese celebrities are mobilizing their fans, such as actor Huang Xiaoming, whose series “Shanghai Bund” was just suspended from Vietnamese TV after he protested the ruling, we have yet to imagine a Filipino Justin Trudeau or Dalai Lama who projects our values into global imagination. One hopes the ruling stimulates a sense of national destiny in Filipinos, as we push ourselves to lead the community of nations toward respecting our sea.

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React: [email protected], Twitter @oscarfbtan, facebook.com/OscarFranklinTan

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TAGS: opinion, ruling, South China Sea, The Hague, West Philippine Sea
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