[OPINION] Marites Vitug and Mr Duterte’s mad wife

'Rock Solid' has placed Malacañang in the uncomfortable position of having to explain why it treats a historic win for the country like a mad wife

Walden Bello

5:0:0am September 7, 2018

7:37:4am September 7, 2018

Deep in the dungeons of the Department of Foreign Affairs on Roxas Boulevard lies the 479-page verdict of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on the maritime dispute between the Philippines and China. 

This document is treated by Foreign Secretary Alan Cayetano like the mysterious Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre treated his mad wife: kept out of sight and under lock and key lest she burn the house down.

Unfortunately for Cayetano and his boss in Malacañang, Marites Vitug, one of the country’s leading journalists, has salvaged the historic ruling from the obscurity that threatened to engulf it and made it and the story behind it come alive in her latest book, "Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won its Maritime Case against China" published by the Ateneo de Manila University Press.  

This book is controversial, so much so that National Book Store, the country’s prime retailer, has refused to distribute it for fear of inviting President Rodrigo Duterte’s wrath.  But wherein lies the controversy? In the fact that the book unveils for a lay audience the massive legal victory the Philippines won in The Hague not only for itself but for all countries intimidated by big neighbors. 

This has placed Malacañang in the uncomfortable position of having to explain why it treats a historic win for the country like a mad wife.

Having some acquaintance with the best works in investigative journalism that have come out in the last few years, I would say that the only other work that matches the depth, comprehensiveness, and drama of Vitug’s book is Andrew Sorkin’s prize-winning "Too Big to Fail," on Wall Street and the financial crisis.I am sure this book will also garner its fair share of awards.

Vitug’s fishing lines

There are 3 lines that Vitug unrolls in the book. 

One follows the confrontation between the Philippines and China on the ground as well as on the high seas. The second delves into the legal intricacies of the case and simplifies them for us laypeople. The third introduces us to a cast of characters who, as in all good journalism, are made to personify the various issues and problems that the author deals with. (Even I have a cameo role, but the author should have made me a footnote instead of giving my flyboy antics two pages worth of valuable column inches). 

Then, like a good fisherwoman, the author pulls the lines together into a dramatic narrative that never flags.

Now this book might be said to be partisan, that it presents only the Philippine side. But this is not the author’s fault since Beijing refused to participate in the proceedings and, outside the proceedings, has done little to prove its case except assert continually that China has historic ownership rights to the South China Sea, with no historical, cartographic, or legal proofs for it. 

Unlike the complex Philippine case, the Chinese side was very simple: we own what you call the West Philippine Sea. This fact is not a matter of legal dispute but an eternal truth. So don’t fuck with us. 

Well, Beijing did not quite put it that way, but at some points, its representatives uttered something close to it. Vitug quotes former Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi saying in Hanoi at a meeting in 2010, with his gaze at a Singaporean official, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s a fact.”

The author does not hesitate to bring up the contradictions that surfaced on the Philippine side or the mistakes the government committed. For instance, during the confrontation with China at the Scarborough Shoal in 2012, it sent a naval warship, the BRP Gregorio del Pilar, instead of a coast guard vessel, an act that gave China great propaganda mileage with its claim the Philippines was being warlike and provocative. 

Then there was the internal Philippine quarrel over whether to include the case of the rock Itu Aba in the Philippine case, a quarrel that had a demoralizing effect (fortunately not too great) on the Philippine team and which ended up costing the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court her job.  (This sideshow that resulted in bad blood between then solicitor general, now Supreme Court Associate Justice, Francis Jardeleza, and then chief justice, now private citizen Maria Lourdes Sereno probably deserves a book of its own.)

Given its rock solid grounding, the Philippines’ victory on nearly all of the 15 points its legal team brilliantly argued over three-and-a-half years was probably expected. What was unexpected was the newly ascended Duterte administration’s almost shamefaced response. Vitug briefly touches on what she characterizes as Manila’s “defeatist, self-flagellating” attitude, but does not delve into it since it really is a whole new topic.  

Manila’s mea culpa

The administration’s response to the PCA decision is, of course, part of a bigger question: why has President Duterte so enthusiastically embraced China? Now there have been a number of explanations offered for this, but let me end this review by giving my take on it.

My sense is that Duterte’s actions stem from 3 things: 1) a shrewd acceptance of changing power realities in Asia, in particular, China’s emerging dominant role in the region, 2) admiration for China’s political system; and 3) an ethical condition that we might call Duterte’s “moral vacuum.”   

First of all, in terms of geopolitical realities, Duterte knew that with its consistent position of not taking sides on sovereignty issues in the South China Sea, which it had reiterated to Philippine presidents from Marcos onwards, the US could do little to come to the Philippines’ aid in a military confrontation with China over the disputed territory, even if the Philippines was a treaty ally. 

Washington, of course, always finessed its statements with high-faluting words about being committed to the defense of the Philippines, but Duterte was no dummy. That the Philippines won its legal battle in The Hague with China over the latter’s claim of having exercised sovereignty historically over the area did not cut any ice with Duterte, for whom power realities are paramount.  

In terms of material incentives, with the US in economic crisis for almost a decade prior to 2016 and Washington’s increasing tightfistedness when it came to foreign aid for allies, Duterte knew the Americans did not have money to spare while rapidly growing China did. 

Chinese loans, aid, and investment play the pivotal role in Duterte’s planned acceleration of upgrading and expanding the country’s infrastructure, a program named Build! Build! Build!

Second, what has often been missed in most assessments is Duterte’s admiration for China’s authoritarian system for its ability to “deliver results.” The Philippine leader has periodically declared his “love” for Chinese President Xi Jin Ping – indeed, so often that it’s getting to be embarrassing. 

That bond is likely cemented by a common belief in the superiority of authoritarian rule over the messy politics of liberal democracy. It is likely that Duterte sees himself, along with Xi and Xi’s Cambodian pet Hun Sen, as a part of a regional alliance of authoritarian regimes that promises to deliver effective government.

Third, the previous Aquino administration’s point in bringing China to a court of arbitration was not a belief that China would respect the legal judgment in the short term. It was to gain moral leverage that could translate into diplomatic leverage in the long haul. As one of the chief architects of the Philippines’ legal strategy, Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, put it, as quoted by Vitug, “This generation will get the ruling. The next generation will convince the world to support us, and maybe the generation after that will convince China.” 

Punk ethics

The Hague arbitration was all about affirming the rule of law on the high seas, and China was found to be on the wrong side of the law. Now respect for the rule of law is not exactly President Duterte’s strong suit. Indeed, I would say that being a serial lawbreaker – sociologist Wataru Kusaka characterizes him as “a bandit who grabbed the state” – he would probably be viscerally incapable of assuming the role of an aggrieved party calling for respect for the rule of law. Can you imagine Duterte going around the word asking China to show respect for the law?

Moreover, like most strongmen and mafiosi, Duterte does not understand or believe in moral leverage. For him current power realities are everything, and China is the biggest boy on the block. You either fight him or suck up to him. Devoid of an appreciation for the strategic benefits of moral authority, Duterte is impatient with a diplomacy that has moral leverage as a key component and thinks he simply has two choices: fight the bigger bully, in which case you will be vaporized, or submit to him   

Despite his constant reference to dreaming about dying for his country, Duterte is actually a punk that is part of Xi Jin Ping’s loyal retinue of neighborhood toughs. 

But his submission has not been without its rewards, for China has strongly supported his withdrawing the Philippines from the International Criminal Court and repeatedly called, in the United Nations and multilateral fora, on the international community – that is, the West – not to interfere with his  priority: the war on drugs.

A new chapter has indeed begun in the Philippines’ international relations. Fortunately, Marites Vitug will be there to chronicle it, whether or not cowardly outfits masquerading as promoters of freedom of thought like National Bookstore agree to distribute the future and present products of her fertile pen. – Rappler.com

Walden Bello authored the House of Representatives Resolution calling for renaming the South China Sea the West Philippine Sea and led the first congressional delegation to visit Pag-asa Island in Kalayaan Island Group in the Spratlys. A critic of China’s hegemonic moves, he also opposed the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA) with the United States.