The Filipino Youth in Geopolitical Context: Leveraging the Power of Social Media and the Internet towards Online Political Engagement in the West Philippine Sea Dispute

This is the winning entry (college level) in the recently concluded essay contest “The West Philippine Sea and Its Impact on the Future of the Philippines” organised by the US Pinoys For Good Governance with presentation of awards to the winners being staged as part of the Second Global Summit of Filipinos in the Diaspora last February 26. / Ed.

By Ferth Vandensteen L. Manaysay [1]
University of the Philippines, Diliman

In the recent years, the South China Sea dispute has put the world on notice, as the region witnessed the re-escalation of the long-standing contested sovereignty and maritime boundary claims amongst the claimant states—predominantly, the Philippines, Vietnam and China—over a mass of small islands and reefs and their adjoining waters.

Ferth Manaysay
Ferth Manaysay

Whether the three above-mentioned countries refer to it as the West Philippine, East, or South China Sea [2] respectively, it is undeniable that these bodies of waters represent the counterpart of the last century’s western land-based territorial contestations, particularly between the eastern and western borders of Germany.

From the Philippines’ perspective, China’s showing in the disputed waters resulted not only to major intrusions into the spaces claimed by the Philippines but also to growing concerns over the threat of bringing about armed conflicts between China and the country.

Notwithstanding these concerns, the Philippine state has managed to be firm in its stance to protect its ownership claims—pivoting the country to take the spotlight as a frontrunner in the prospects of security and stability in the region. More notably, these recent developments elevated significant questions on the ground. Why do the Philippines and other claimants behave the way they do? What is at stake in the disputed waters? How will this affect the Filipino populace? What can be done?

Ferth with UP Diliman Department of Political Science Chairperson Dr. Ruth Lusterio-Rico (left) and Ferth's mother Mrs Ester L. Manaysay during awards presentation night. / Photo: The Filipino Australian
Ferth with UP Diliman Department of Political Science Chairperson Dr. Ruth Lusterio-Rico (left) and Ferth's mother Mrs Ester L. Manaysay during awards presentation night. / Photo: The Filipino Australian

The purpose of this essay is four-fold. First, it briefly discusses the main arguments surrounding the territorial disputes between the Philippines and other claimant states over the resource-rich and strategically important West Philippine Sea [3]. Second, it highlights the prevailing opportunities and constraints for the Philippines in the managing of its territorial, maritime space, and resource disputes, as well as its implications for the prospects of the Filipino citizenry. Third, it presents the possibility of utilizing a social media platform to engage the youth in articulating their views on the dispute as the issue affects the country. Finally, it concludes that the partaking of the Filipino youth in the issue entails both cooperation and commitment from different state and non-state actors.

In understanding the major points underlying the West Philippine Sea dispute, one must look into the geographical, historical, and legal dimensions of the issue. Essentially, the issues relating to sovereignty and territorial integrity are the most omnipresent security problems of the countries involved. Conflicting claims over the ownership of the islands have for decades been a source of tension, making it a potential major ‘flashpoint’ and the ‘future of conflict’ in the region [4].

There are a number of justifications alluded for this conflict: growing needs for energy and natural resources, contestations over fishing grounds, mounting patriotism, military capacity advancement, and overlapping legalistic claims among the claimant states [5]. In the case of the Philippines, its assertiveness on its claims has been consistently on the upswing in the past years.

The tensions in the claimed areas of the Philippines can be briefly narrated in three most significant instances: the ‘Mischief Reef conflict’ [6] and other parts of the Spratly Islands in the 1990s, the ‘Reed Bank incident’ [7] in 2011 and most recently, the ‘Scarborough Shoal stand-off’ [8] in 2012. Certainly, these rising tensions imply that there has been insufficient improvement in the concrete execution of dispute management mechanisms for the contested waters.

As far as the dispute management mechanisms are concerned, the Philippines has been consistently active in the resolution of the issue via multilateral discourses, arguing that ASEAN should cooperatively settle with China through the institutionalization of a code of conduct. The geopolitical context, under which the dispute operates, has opened up political opportunities (and constraints) to provoke more diplomatic and military responses from the Philippines. The Philippine state diplomatically arranged bilateral and multilateral meetings with neighboring countries in addition to the complaint launched to the United Nations opposing China’s sovereign claim to the South China Sea.

Furthermore, the country has also adopted to refer to South China Sea as “West Philippine Sea” to assert our territorial claim in our contested maritime spaces. Interestingly, the state has also made a range of arrangements to improve its military capacities by increasing its budget allocation for the national defense. In this regard, the government started re-kindling its close military ties by strengthening security cooperation with the US and other allies in the region. However, there are also constraints and challenges which the Philippines must face such as China’s unwillingness to use international arbitration as an option in resolving the dispute, and more importantly, the institutionalization of a strategic framework in the supervision of its territorial and resource claims, as well as its maritime jurisdiction in the West Philippine Sea [9].

Ferth (standing, third from right) with some of the winners, judges, and contest supporters during awards presentation night. [click to zoom in]
Ferth (standing, third from right) with some of the winners, judges, and contest supporters during awards presentation night. [click to zoom in]

The contestations over these waters hinges on the considerable natural resources that lies therein such as hydrocarbon, oil, natural gas, manganese nodules and fish, in addition to its strategic location–serving as the world’s second busiest international sea lane. These resources put forward remarkable economic prospects for a relatively smaller nation such as the Philippines.

Definitely, the success (or failure) of the Philippines in managing its territorial dispute and access to the natural resources impinges not only on the national security, human security, and environmental and economic interests of the country but also on the general well-being of the Filipino citizenry. Proper management of the disputes and sustainable development of the resources therein would ensure higher standards of living for the Filipinos in the long run.

If the government could successfully engage in this issue, it can be utilized so that the many poor unemployed Filipino citizens all over the country can have an opening to sustain their livings and their families which in turn shall help the macroeconomic condition of the country. In other words, the national interest in the contested waters is portrayed as the best end-result for the common good. More importantly, the resources embedded in the West Philippine Sea present great potentials for the development prospects of the next generations to come—the youth. While management of the sea disputes and sustainable utilization of natural resources are what responsible citizens and the government should aim to achieve, it might be useful to assess how students and youth can immediately contribute to helping out at their own level.

Acting in a media-rich environment, the Filipino youth sector can pull off countless modalities to support the government’s bid to defend the country’s sovereign and resource claims. The most notable of which is the rapidly rising power of social media in changing the way many things are done. Coupled with the robust growth of social media usage among the Filipino youth, it can be utilized as an enabling tool for youth empowerment in this issue. Certainly, the popularity of the social media among youth can be effectively leveraged to turn “tweets” and “likes” into an organized voice for collective action.

While the value of personal interaction cannot be undermined, it needs to be accompanied with alternative realms such as social media initiatives to continuously motivate and engage youth in advocating our national sovereignty over the internet. Furthermore, the social media tools can be strategically employed to bridge the gap between the key decision-makers in the government and the youth sector.

As an illustration, take the case of the Philippines’ most recent attempt to request United Nations arbitration of its territorial dispute with China [10]. Most young people fail to realize that this action provides an opening for the youth sector to contribute in the success of the government’s proposition. For instance, youth organizations and community movements could coalesce to create a network to congregate social resources to pursue the advocacy over the internet. The end-result would be an online youth-led advocacy campaign supporting the sovereign claim of the Philippines.

Of course, even if the social media as a platform is gaining impetus in advocacy work, it is imperative to be tactical around their use. To utilize social media effectively, the youth should clearly plan out what the targets are, which social media components are most suited to those targets, and what results they expect to achieve from these endeavors. With a sound social media plan, this can serve as a significant diplomatic channel to defend our sovereignty.

More importantly, it is critical to set up an integrated social media platform to give accurate information about the Philippines’ stance not only to the citizenry but also to the rest of the world. With the limitations of the youth, this social media platform demonstrates that it is still possible for the young people to defend our national sovereignty through online advocacy campaign even with limited resources for set-up. It has the potential to advance this advocacy further than ever before.

In essence, the above-mentioned social media platform has more figurative implications than literal. The importance of the social media platform in promoting our national interests impinges on the politico-psychological dimension of the issue. Incontestably, we cannot compare with China in terms of military, political, and economic power. However, in the light of our weak military and politico-economic capacity to engage with China, a figurative counter-attack cannot be undermined. As Michel Foucault explains, ‘power is everywhere’ and ‘comes from everywhere’ [11].

Hence, the youth should be aware of how powerful the discursive forces could be. In this regard, the use of social media as an alternative realm for youth activism in the dispute shows how powerless structures can espouse powerful meanings. More importantly, this platform is a mechanism to inform the Filipino citizenry about the reality. The ultimate consequence of this platform is posited on the aspiration to achieve willpower and concord inside the country to defend our sovereignty. There is also a need to identify the country’s economic and political potentials as well as its strengths and weaknesses.

The youth assumes a critical role in bringing together the people’s will and raising the people’s power. Above all, the key decision-makers should correspondingly recognize that it is important to incorporate youth-oriented component in their undertakings as the young people are probably the most affected in this issue. The challenge then is to create enough spaces for the youth, as actions with longer and lasting impacts are materialized when a combination of youth development and citizen participation is seen.

In sum, situating the Filipino youth in the geopolitical context of the West Philippine Sea disputes demands both cooperation and commitment from the state and non-state actors. Given these points, can the youth walk the talk?


[1] The author is currently a third year, BA-MA Political Science (Honors Program) student of the Political Science Department, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines Diliman). He also acknowledges Dr. Maria Lourdes Rebullida and Dean Michael Tan, who agreed to be his referring professor and confirmation signatory respectively, for this essay contest.
[2] For the intent of this essay, the term ‘South China Sea’ pertains to the entire semi-enclosed sea geographically surrounded by six States—China (including Taiwan), Vietnam, Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Indonesia. Moreover, the use of ‘West Philippine Sea’ refers to the parts of the South China Sea within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone—particularly, the Philippines’ claims to the Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal.
[3] Although the Philippines also have overlapping territorial claims with the other countries in the region such as Vietnam and Malaysia, this essay shall focus more on the Sino-Philippine disputes over the island territories.
[4] Robert Kaplan predicts that the 21st century’s defining battleground is going to be on water.
[5] Ian Storey, “Asia’s Changing Balance of Military Power: Implications for the South China Sea Dispute” in Maritime Energy Resources in Asia: Energy and Geopolitics (The National Bureau of Asian Research, 2011)
[6] In 1994, the country physically lost Mischief Reef, which was at that time inside the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines, to China.
[7] Tensions between the two nations started to ratchet up significantly in March 2011, when Chinese vessels harassed a Philippine-chartered gas exploration vessel at Reed Bank (France-Presse, 2012).
[8] A stand-off between Chinese and Philippine vessels that began in April this year at Scarborough Shoal further inflamed tensions. Philippine Foreign Minister Albert del Rosario accused China of “duplicity” and “intimidation” (France-Presse, 2012).
[9] The WPS Informal Expert Group proposed a policy agenda entitled “Towards a Strategic Framework for Management of the West Philippine Sea,” authored by ten experts. It suggests three imperatives that the Philippines should follow: (1) sustainable development of our marine economy and resources; (2) promoting maritime security and defense, and contributing to good order at sea; and (3) assertion of sovereignty over territory and the exercise of sovereign rights over the EEZ and continental shelf.
[10] According to Secretary Albert del Rosario, the country’s move is in accordance with President Aquino’s desire to have a peaceful and rules-based solution to the problem.
[11] Paul Rabinow, “The Foulcault Reader: An Introduction to Foulcault’s Thought” (Penguin, 1991)


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