After the Philippines won the arbitration case against China in 2016, a friend suggested to veteran journalist and Rappler editor-at-large Marites Vitug that she should write a book about it. The idea wasn’t particularly enticing at first, as Vitug thought that the scattered reefs, rocks, and islands were an esoteric subject. What was so interesting about these remote features, some of which were even submerged during high tide? But as she started doing research and uncovering all the details—thorough formerly classified documents like diplomatic cables, notes verbale, intelligence reports of the navy, the armed forces, and the Department of National Defense—the case came to life and took on aspects of a tension-filled, high-stakes legal thriller.
“In this book I tell the story of this victory that gave the country so much but has not been given the national attention it deserves,” Vitug said during the launch of Rock Solid. “The Philippines gained a maritime area larger than the total land area of the country, rich in resources, yet these gains have been disregarded by the government in its rush to embrace China.”
Vitug, in researching for over a year, went to the frontlines of the dispute, from Pag-asa Island and Palawan, to Masinloc in Zambales where “geopolitics is personal to the fishermen.” She also went to the Hague, the setting of the arbitration, and the Washington, DC offices of the lawyers who argued for the Philippines. The narrative goes back almost two decades when Beijing began claiming sovereignty over the South China Sea. Now, two years after the ruling was handed down, Vitug believes it’s time to start a national conversation on how to move forward and use the legal victory to assert and fight for our country’s rights.
Acting Chief Justice Antonio Carpio said at the launch that, after the tribunal issued the ruling that overwhelmingly favored the Philippines, he expected the government to ask the rest of the world to help the Philippines convince China to comply with the ruling. It turned out that our own government was the one that needed convincing, our own government which publicly doubted the usefulness of the ruling, even calling it an “empty victory.” He believes that “this appeasement policy, even a defeatist policy, can only cement China’s hold in the WPS, and even lead to a waiver of our sovereign rights which we fought so hard for.”
The antidote, Carpio believes, is to harness the support of the Filipino people. According to recent Pulse Asia and SWS surveys, 73 percent want the ruling to be enforced, and 87 percent wants the government to retake the islands seized by China. If the number reaches 90 percent, the administration can no longer ignore the will of the people.
Rock Solid comes at a crucial time when there is a need for a renewed effort to inform people of the great value and usefulness of the ruling. The Philippines is blessed with a very long coastline and the immeasurable marine resources that extend from it. Yet we’re still largely unaware of how our geography affects every aspect of our lives, even distant little rocks jutting out of the sea.