BOOK REVIEW: ROCK SOLID: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China

by Rose Churma

The Philippines won its maritime case against China on July 12, 2016, a historic moment that will be remembered forever in the chapters of public international law. It was a stunning event that placed the Philippines in the international spotlight.

This book answers the questions – why did the Philippines sue China? How did the Philippines prepare for this and who were the main players behind this victory? And what could be its future impact?

Taking this legal step, a small country like the Philippines against China, with its mega-powers and resources is like a David versus Goliath tale. For the Philippines to win, it meant pulling together the best minds of the country and testing the quality and integrity of its public servants.

China’s slow and subtle aggression to take possession of islands and maritime features that violated the Philippines’ sovereign rights can be glimpsed in 1994 at Panganiban Reef (near Palawan) when China began setting up octagon-shaped structures with parabolic communications discs, a full-fledged presence complete with 11 anchored vessels and a thousand uniformed soldiers.

The Philippines only found out about it in January 1995 when the skipper of a Filipino fishing vessel reported to the authorities that he and his crew were arrested and detained for a week by China’s naval personnel.

It was this incident that made a mark on Antonio Carpio’s mind, who was then serving as President Fidel Ramos’ Presidential Legal Counsel.

It was the third year after the Philippines had asked the US to remove its bases. The Philippines’ sovereign rights were under the protection of its Navy and Air Force which had been largely dependent on US resources.

Six years later, Antonio Carpio would be appointed to the Supreme Court and one of the cases that came before that judicial body involved laws that delineated the archipelagic waters of the Philippines. He recalls that this was when he studied UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea) with “laser-like focus.”

The Philippines’ Foreign Affairs (DFA) Secretary Albert del Rosario notes in a 2017 speech that:

“As early as 2011, Justice Carpio correctly foresaw the unilateral path on which Beijing would embark on its attempts to control the South China Sea. He pointed to and proactively advised [us] on the use of international law as the best and most peaceful means of securing our position on the basis of universally recognized global norms and principles.”

During the first five months when Albert del Rosario was DFA secretary, the Philippines suffered at least seven aggressive interferences from China, from intimidating Filipino fishermen to harassing seismic survey vessels of a Philippine company that was exploring for oil and gas.

Although the Philippines’ diplomats protested, it was like “talking to a brick wall.” Del Rosario would recall how he “felt like a scrawny Filipino kid being confronted by a schoolyard bully.”

And he adds, “so we made a decision to stand up in any opportunity for what is right, and we worked to internationalize our northern neighbor’s use of muscle to achieve this unlawfully.”

Thus, it was during his watch that the Philippines used a new tool in its diplomatic arsenal: litigation. This would be the first time that the Philippines would sue another country in international court.

The author has written a comprehensive account of the epic legal battle of the Philippines’ territorial claim against China. It is an accessible documentation that led to the historic judgment of the Permanent Court of Arbitration.

Yusuke Takagi of the National Graduate Institute of Policy Studies notes in the back cover, “Everyone interested in maritime natural resources, energy and environmental issues, maritime security, and geopolitics in the region should read this book.”

The author, Marites Daguilan Vitug is an award-winning journalist and has received worldwide recognition for her work on justice, politics and security. She received the Courage in Journalism Award from the US-based International Women’s Media Foundation for her exposes on the plunder of Palawan’s forests. She is also chair emeritus of the Journalism for Nation Building Foundation, a spin-off of Newsbreak and writes for Rappler, an online news website.

ROSE CRUZ CHURMA is a retired architect who now has the time to do the things she always wanted to do: read books, write about them and encourage others to write. Her online bookstore, Kalamansi Books and Things (, promotes Filipiniana books and publications by Filipino-Americans. Email her at

Read more Book Reviews:
BOOK REVIEW: WAY OF THE ANCIENT HEALER: Sacred Teachings from the Philippine Ancestral Traditions
BOOK REVIEW: PLANTAS MEDICINALES de FILIPINAS (Medicinal Plants of the Philippines)

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