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Standing up to China (3)


Third of five parts

IN the international law community, the Philippines v. China case reverberated in forums, lectures, blogs and journals. Countless opinions, analyses and news reports in the media in various capitals of the world streamed in. It was a much-awaited award, a case that elicited extraordinary attention.

“July 12, 2016 is a date that will remain etched in the history of international adjudication, a professor of the faculty of law, University of Geneva, intoned in his introduction to a forum. “The Award was an undeniable judicial victory for the Philippines.”

In an essay, Lowell Bautista, who teaches at the University of Wollongong School of Law, hailed the case as the “first international litigation initiated by a claimant state in the South China Sea.”

He called it a “bold move, a game changer” which has “altered the terrain of strategies available to claimant states that have always eschewed legal options.”

In London, one of the Philippine counsels, Philippe Sands, put in some perspective: “This is the most significant international legal case for almost the past 20 years since the Pinochet judgment,” he told The Guardian.

Closer to home, the comments of Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong were remarkable because these departed from the usually subdued tones of Southeast Asian leaders when they talk about other members of Asean. While visiting the US, he was asked about the Philippines v. China case. He replied: “The ruling of the tribunal has made a strong statement on what the international law is… It is an impartial, objective, peaceful way of resolving issues.”

Japan, for its part, had been openly supporting the Philippines’ move to seek a solution to its maritime dispute with China via international arbitration. Ambassador Shingo Yamagami of the Japan Institute of International Affairs, a think tank, said in a speech in Manila in December 2016 that the ruling was a “historic decision and it will have a sustained power. Whenever legal scholars or international experts review this case or similar case, this arbitration award will stay for good, forever.”

He went on, in a reassuring way: “This ruling is going to be the litmus test of the rule of law in East Asia… We do not want to see bullying, we do not want to see a world where only might prevails… You might feel lonely standing at the frontline, but you are not alone.”


It was only in 2009 when China made official its U-shaped nine-dash line claim, when it transmitted it to the UN China claimed historic rights but in reality, it had no legal basis. China wove its fiction from thin air, like arbitrarily drawing boundaries over existing maps. Del Rosario described the nine-dash line as a “Berlin wall of the sea: a giant fence owned by and excluding everyone but China itself.”

The tribunal conducted a total of seven days of hearings, three on jurisdiction issues and four on the merits of the case. These were held more than a year apart.

Paul Reichler’s firm—the Philippine lawyers—hired an expert cartographer to help draw the maps because they made legal arguments using pictures.”  Through the maps, the Philippines showed the “outrageousness” of China’s claims. More importantly, Reichler said: “There is nowhere on earth where the Philippines can stand up against China, except in a court or international tribunal, and if you believe in justice for those who are the worst victims of justice internationally, then a career as an international lawyer gives you a chance to do something.”

To put the issues in perspective for the public, Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio warned that the country was facing the “gravest external threat to the Philippines since World War II.” In his speeches, he said that the root cause of the South China Sea dispute was China’s nine-dash lines claim, which gobbled up large areas of the EEZs of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia.

This, he said, enclosed 85.7 percent of the entire South China Sea. For the Philippines alone, this covered 80 percent of its EEZ, a huge maritime space which Carpio depicted in numbers: “over 531,000 square kilometers, larger than the total land area of the Philippines of 300,000 square kilometers.”

This was what was at stake—and the Philippines could keep it or lose it to China. (to be continued)


(Excerpts from a speech delivered by multi-awarded journalist Marites Dañguilan Vitug at Davao launch of her latest book, “Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won its Maritime Case against China” at the Media Center of the Ateneo de Davao University this Aug. 3.)


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