The Philippines never had a navy that could defend territory in the South China Sea, or so it thought.
That was before the Navy mobilized a decrepit old ship destined for the junkyard. In a somewhat laughable but ultimately effective defensive maneuver, the ramshackle BRP Sierra Madre was intentionally grounded into a Philippine shoal that China had long been eyeing, and became a legally recognized marker of sovereignty.
As Marites Dañguilan Vitug tells the story in her new book “Rock Solid,” a Philippine admiral had the ingenious idea in 1999 to turn the seagoing jalopy into one of the more bizarre enterprises in naval history. Not only did the BRP Sierra Madre – which hosted a squad of Philippine Marines that subsisted on regular deliveries of rations from the mainland – maintain a flag in Ayungin Shoal, it posed a possible public relations nightmare for China. Attacking a pathetic wreck of a military camp would not have been the best optics for a rising China that wanted to be taken seriously as a global power.
For China, the unique defense was a source of irritation. For the Philippines, it was a demonstration of nerve-wracking diskarte, the quality of creative resourcefulness that the country would apply all the way to The Hague and its historic 2016 victory over China in an international court of law.
In her sprawling narrative spanning decades and the globe, Vitug takes readers from courtroom dramas to breath-taking chases on the high seas in a modern-day David-and-Goliath tale.
After three books on the Supreme Court, Marites Vitug has entered new journalistic territory worthy of her zeal for investigation. But in “Rock Solid,” she employs her signature technique of making dry legal cases come alive through colorful anecdotes and the force of personality of the main players in an international drama.
She dove into a trove of newly released secret memos that were annexes to the Philippines’ case against China in the international arbitration tribunal, which ultimately ruled in favor of the Philippines in July 2016. These documents provide a thread of little known incidents and dialogue in the story of a poor island nation’s struggle for sovereign control against an ancient and powerful adversary, an authentic parable for our times yet also a cautionary tale marked by creativity and cleverness, but also betrayal and incompetence. Or in Filipino, talino and abilidad, pagtaksil and kapalpakan.
In foreign relations, there’s what the wonks call hard power – brute coercion through military action or economic pressure – and soft power, not weakness by any means but the achievement of strategic goals through the non-violent, often cerebral ways of diplomacy, international law, and even pop culture.
Then there are those clever tricks in between like using a naval shipwreck as a military base to protect a shoal: hard-power hardware used in an unlikely soft-power operation. It was the proverbial David using his wits and mobilizing public sympathy to ward off a behemoth, a display of Filipino improvisation borne out of desperation.
In a way, that sums up the Philippine strategy in asserting its rights in the international tribunal that culminated in its 2016 triumph over China in The Hague, which was hailed as a victory for rule of law and for underdogs everywhere.
The euphoria was short-lived, as in only hours, as the new Duterte administration immediately, and mysteriously, made clear that the favorable decision was not something to celebrate. Aquino administration officials had a detailed plan in place to mobilize international support in case a favorable verdict was handed down, the first step in a long-term strategy to ensure Chinese compliance and regain Scarborough Shoal that China had brazenly grabbed.
But in one of those bitter twists in history, Aquino administration officials had just vacated their offices when the tribunal released its decision. “We missed it by days,” rued then-Foreign Secretary Rene Almendras, who watched in disbelief as his successor Perfecto Yasay, President Rodrigo Duterte’s appointee, did not show “a hint of joy.”