The silent hero behind the Philippines' case vs China

MANILA, Philippines – Days after the Philippines won its case against China on July 12, 2016, seasoned diplomat Henry Bensurto Jr recalled a touching email from a junior officer of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).

The junior officer, whose name Bensurto withheld, thanked him for being the once "lonely voice" that pushed for a case against China over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). 

"Oh, I cannot describe to you the pain," Bensurto said in an interview with Rappler in August 2016, when asked to explain why he was called a "lonely voice."

Bensurto, 52, was the silent hero behind the blueprint of the Philippines' case against China at The Hague, in the face of naysayers in his own department. His work led to the Philippines' historic victory against China, the first anniversary of which was marked on Wednesday, July 12. (READ: Rally world around Hague ruling, experts tell PH)

Former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario told Rappler on Friday, July 14, "I would consider Henry as a quiet hero and a true patriot for his expertise, for his conviction, and for his courage."

"Without his important contributions, we may not have succeeded to the extent that had been achieved in obtaining a positive arbitral tribunal outcome to benefit the Filipino people and the world," Del Rosario added.

Journalist Bill Hayton, in his book The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia, also wrote that Bensurto "is the brains behind the Philippines' policy in the South China Sea disputes." 

Bensurto's role in the case is widely known, too, among diplomats in the region. In fact when we did our interview at the Manila Hotel lobby in August 2016, an Indonesian official passed by, greeted Bensurto, and congratulated him: "I remember this is your idea to bring the case to court."

'In my nature to take risks'

Bensurto, who has been Philippine consul general to San Francisco since June 2014, has been an achiever since his youth.

When he was 25 years old, he took two of the Philippines' hardest exams in the same year. 

Bensurto ended up passing both the Bar Exam and the Foreign Service Officer Exam in 1991.

"Maybe it's in my nature to take risks," he said.

When the results of both exams came out, "it was a dilemma, because when you study law, you always have the instinct to litigate in a court."

"But I decided, at that time that there were few diplomats, maybe I can put to good use the legal skills in the context of diplomacy as well," he said.

Attorney Bensurto then entered the foreign service, and a few years later studied public international law at Oxford University under a Chevening scholarship. 

An alumnus of both the University of the Philippines and San Beda College, he graduated from Oxford with distinction in 1996.

No 'pass your paper' mentality

At the DFA, Bensurto was the kind of diplomat whom his bosses often wanted to keep in the Philippines because they needed his skills. 

His batchmates, for instance, got their first international assignments after 3 years as junior officers based in the Philippines.

It took Bensurto 9 years before he got posted abroad.

"The reason for that is because my boss asked me to stay put and help," he explained. 

One of the projects he handled was the development of the Roppongi property in Japan, which the Philippines got as reparation from Japan after World War II. Bensurto and his colleagues finished this project in the late 1990s, and now "one of the most beautiful embassies we have overseas is the one in Roppongi, Japan." 

Looking back at these experiences, Bensurto said he has no regrets even if he was often stuck in the Philippines.

"I think there's a saying in the department: Don't make yourself indispensable, because when you make yourself indispensable, you get stuck," he said.

In his case, Bensurto said, "I just have this mentality that when you're given work, you have to do the best that you can, because you owe it not only to your government and to your country.”

Bensurto said he resists a "pass your paper" mentality.

First partnership with Del Rosario 

Bensurto brought this work ethic with him when he was finally assigned to Washington DC in 1999. He worked there as consul and legal officer.

It was in Washington DC that he first worked with Del Rosario, the Philippine ambassador to the US from 2001 to 2006.

In the US, Bensurto faced one of his toughest tests, when the US justice department "tried to assume criminal jurisdiction" over executives "of all the telecommunication companies in the Philippines," including PLDT. This was for the alleged violation of the US anti-trust law.

Del Rosario requested him to address this problem. 

Bensurto said he thought of arguing the Philippines' case in a court of law, even if private lawyers felt pessimistic "because the batting average of the US Department of Justice in terms of anti-trust violations was almost 100% at that time."

"But I never wavered in that," Bensurto said.

And the Philippines won. "It was also an 'impossible' undertaking, an 'impossible' task," he said.

Referring to Del Rosario, he also pointed out, "This is our first partnership."

LOW-KEY DIPLOMAT. Henry Bensurto Jr (1st from right), Philippine consul general to San Francisco, is known as a low-key diplomat with the highest of credentials. File photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

LOW-KEY DIPLOMAT. Henry Bensurto Jr (1st from right), Philippine consul general to San Francisco, is known as a low-key diplomat with the highest of credentials.

File photo by LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

'It's ADR and myself'

Years later in Manila, Bensurto and Del Rosario worked together again by 2011, when the former ambassador became secretary of foreign affairs.

Bensurto said Del Rosario "wanted a more creative solution" to the South China Sea dispute "because we were like talking to a wall." 

Back then at the DFA, Bensurto was the most equipped to tackle this issue. 

On top of his studies in Oxford, where he took as many electives as possible on the law of the sea, Bensurto also went to the Rhodes Academy of Oceans Law and Policy in Greece.

In 2007, he became the first secretary general of the Commission on Maritime and Ocean Affairs.

Bensurto later helped in passing the Archipelagic Baselines Law of 2009, for which he received the Presidential Award of Gawad Mabini (with the Rank of Commander), according to a profile uploaded by the National University of Singapore.

He also conceptualized a blueprint to address all of the Philippines' maritime concerns. In 2010, he finalized what he called the Philippine Maritime Security Strategy that aimed to create a Zone of Peace, Freedom, Friendship, and Cooperation (ZOPFFC) in the South China Sea. 

Armed with his expertise, Bensurto was convinced of bringing China to court, particularly to a legally-binding compulsory arbitration on the sea dispute. 

Bensurto discussed this with Del Rosario, and later the two of them brought this proposal to then president Benigno Aquino III. 

"But I wouldn't want to grab credit on my own because from my perspective, I always understand the issue as a collective partnership of different people, and I think it was critical that ADR and I were on the same page," he said.

Aquino ended up deciding to file a case against China. The Philippines won this on July 12, 2016. 

Bensurto said: "We don't call it ZOPFFC now. We call it the tribunal decision. What we have achieved in the arbitration is precisely ZOPFFC."

Asked if he alone presented the winning strategy to Aquino, Bensurto also referred to Del Rosario, whom he called by his initials ADR. "I would like to look at it as ADR and myself, because the truth of the matter is, ideas will not prosper if you don't have the right champion."

'Work has a higher meaning'

Bensurto, of course, had to face a number of challenges. "We had to overcome a lot of resistance, even from within," he said. "If not for ADR, I would have been a lone wolf." (READ: 'Del Rosario diplomacy' hailed amid PH victory)

In the face of his critics, the diplomat also credited his colleagues at the Commission on Maritime and Ocean Affairs – "the people who believed in me and worked with me all the way."

Del Rosario himself said Bensurto is "a man of conviction who stood up at all times to promote the national interest, notwithstanding difficult challenges which we had to surmount."

At the same time, Bensurto also pointed out "trade-offs" in his personal life. For one, because of the West Philippine Sea issue, he got stuck in the Philippines for more than a year after his last foreign posting, unlike many of his colleagues. "I was here for about 7 years."

He said this was difficult because Filipino diplomats get lower salaries when they stay in the Philippines. For diplomats, "your opportunity to help yourself financially is when you're posted abroad," he said.

"It had a lot of practical consequences for me and my family, because to give up a foreign assignment is not easy, in a sense, because you give up the opportunity to help yourself and your family, the financial ability to make your financial standing a little stable," he said.

Still, Bensurto said, "I have no regrets because it's for the country."

In the end, Bensurto said he draws his convictions from something deeper. "For me, work has a higher meaning."

Work, he said, "is something that you're able to do to help yourself, to help your family, and to help others."

"But more than that," he added, "and I have to apologize, and pardon me for this, it's something that you can offer to God. It's something that you can sanctify yourself with." 

"Work is something that can be used as a raw material to get closer to God, to get closer to others, and at the same time help others," said the diplomat, lawyer, and silent hero named Henry Bensurto Jr. – Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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