Book Review: Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won its Maritime Case Against China
By Marites Danguilan Vitug
Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2018, xviii, 315 pp.
“The Pampanga was hobbled by a number of weaknesses. Fresh water supply was limited as its pumps had difficulty sucking water from its tanks. The ship’s desalination plant was badly in need of repair or replacement. The satellite phone assigned to them had many blind spots at sea. Of the four binoculars on the ship, one was borrowed, only one was reliable while the others had poor vision. But the patrol had to go on.”
This state of the Australian-built search-and-rescue vessel (not a warship!), paid for by the Philippines and commissioned in 2003, symbolizes the country’s hapless fate vis-à-vis China. Like the BRP Pampanga crew, Filipino leaders played by the rules of engagements, only to lose out in their eyeball-to-eyeball-confrontation with the Chinese. They opted for diplomacy at the onset but had no big stick to use when things went South.
Vitug tells us of attempts by the Philippines to compel China to withdraw from the West Philippine Sea. In each encounter, our country’s leaders found themselves at a loss until the pluckiest of them – former President Benigno Aquino III and Associate Justice Antonio Carpio – filed a case against the People’s Republic in The Hague.
Did Aquino (and Carpio) have any choice? It seems like it, given that the road to the case against China was littered with disagreements over strategies, hesitations, and an almost naïve belief that the diplomatic note verbale was sufficient enough to convince China to withdraw.
Going to the Hague was also the inevitable outcome of the Philippines belatedly realizing the value of external defense. Not that the leaders were not aware of it; in fact, President Fidel Ramos kept talking about it. But it was Aquino III who took the next step -- buying fighter jets from South Korea, purchasing aged U.S. Coast Guard ships, and re-pivoting the Philippine Marines back to their real role – external defense. He filed the case even as he did his best to get the Philippines ready for a possible conflict against this global hegemon.
Aquino knew that the Mutual Defense Treaty (MDT) with the United States would never come into play. Some officials thought of invoking it. On page 100, Vitug cites excerpts of an interesting exchange Foreign Secretary Roberto Romulo and Undersecretary Rodolfo Severino had with Senators Neptali Gonzales and Blas Ople over the value of the MDT. The latter was ready to explore this option, but Severino told them “We feel that this is not a military matter at this point.”
Severino was not alone in preferring diplomacy to war; the Americans were equally not interested in using the treaty. While the likes of former U.S Pacific Command (PACOM) head General Dennis Blair thought that the MDT applied when it came to the Mischief Reef, his civilian bosses demurred. They too preferred talking to fighting, to “preserve the ambiguity” for China. President Obama “Pacific Pivot” strategy was not to prepare for eventual war. PACOM was only there to back up State Department initiatives.
China, however, was never ambiguous about its position. When word of the ruling reached President Xi Jin Peng, he simply reiterated that the West Philippine Sea was China’s “since ancient times.” That was it, and the Chinese navy continued to build a military base in the Spratleys.
All this is rooted in longer histories, of course, and Vitug is quite mindful of this. On the Philippine side, it was this excessive dependence on the United States, when it came to foreign policy, that bred diplomatic slothfulness. This was reflected in the very little concern given to developing a critical foreign policy infrastructure that reached out to other nations.
True, there was once a degree in foreign service, but it was a profession propagated somewhat limitedly. At the University of the Philippines in my time, FS majors went for European languages, perhaps hoping for an assignment in the West. Hardly anyone was interested in Chinese (or even Japanese), reflecting a lack of foresight of the things to come. For example, by the late 1970s, there were already signs that the People’s Republic was flexing its muscle in Asian affairs. The most notable of these was the war with Vietnam over territory. The Chinese lost to the more battle-experienced Vietnamese, but they also learned their lessons.
Marcos was interested in China -- he successfully got Chairman Mao to cut off all kinds of support to Jose Ma. Sison’s Maoists. But he remained loyal to the United States. In the 1980s, the dictator doubled down on seeking unconditional American support, albeit in an odd way. According to Raymond Bonner, Marcos attempted to blackmail the Americans by threatening to close the U.S. bases unless they paid a higher rent. He did so to prop his weakening political position, and not to anticipate China’s future moves.
It was under Ramos that the Philippine diplomatic corps began to take diplomacy seriously as multilateral and not just a relationship between two allies. A miffed United States, still hurting over the closure of the bases, cut aid significantly and withdrew from Philippine politics. It only returned when the Abu Sayyaf kidnapped the Burnhams. This snob compelled the Philippines to look elsewhere, and its relations with ASEAN and Japan began to prosper.
The Chinese, however, had been moving fast. As Vitug tells us, by the late 1980s, Deng Xiao Ping had already laid out the policy that would lead to the takeover of the West Philippine Sea a decade after.
Philippine officials were aware of this but did very little to counter the Chinese; and the diplomatic corps remained an apparatus designed to foster Philippine-American relations. This was unfortunate but understandable: changing the orientation and administrative practices deeply ingrained in state bureaucracies could not easily be changed overnight (unless you are an authoritarian state like China).
By the time the Philippines had filed its case at the International Court of Arbitration, it had virtually conceded the West Philippine Sea to a bellicose and well-armed China. A moral victory was won, but in the world of realpolitik, it amounted to nothing. President Rodrigo Duterte plunged the knife into the dying body that was Philippine sovereignty by cowardly kowtowing to the wishes of his Chinese patrons. He has turned the Philippines into a de facto provincial extension of China, and as his devotion deepens so has his anti-Americanism grown.
(This puts his Filipino-American fans in a bind. Now that he has become more pro-Chinese and anti-American, where do they stand vis-à-vis the capo President?)
In her introduction, Marites Vitug – one of the country’s foremost journalists and public intellectuals – bemoaned how Philippine officialdom is “bereft of strategic thinking,” and how officials are more concerned with their personal/clan interests than that of the country. There are notable exceptions like Aquino III and Carpio, who – as it turns out – are history buffs. But they are part of a small opposition.
And this is what is so difficult about the book. As you leaf through its pages, you find yourself getting angrier at those in power whose provincialism, corruption and inefficient administration have given China a free hand in its ambition to control this side of the Pacific.
Patricio N. Abinales teaches Philippine political history at the School of Pacific and Asian Studies, University of Hawai`i-Manoa.
More articles by Patricio N. Abinales