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



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. Whether the three above-mentioned countries refer to it as the West Philippine, East, or South China Sea [[3]] 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?

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 [[4]]. 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 [[5]]. 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 [[6]] 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’ [[7]] and other parts of the Spratly Islands in the 1990s, the ‘Reed Bank incident’ [[8]] in 2011 and most recently, the ‘Scarborough Shoal stand-off’ [[9]] 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 [[10]].

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 [[11]]. 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’ [[12]]. 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?

About the author

Ferth Vandensteen Manaysay is a senior student pursuing BA-MA Political Science in the University of the Philippines, Diliman. He is currently Vice President for Academics, UP Association of Political Science Majors and Volunteer/Intern, Third World Studies Center. He aspires to be an established academic researcher and writer in the future.


[[1]] 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” organized by the United States Pinoys For Good Governance (USP4GG) with presentation of awards to the winners being staged as part of the Second Global Summit of Filipinos in the Diaspora last February 26.

[[2]] The author is currently a fourth year,  BA-MA Political Science (Honors Program) student of the Political Science Department, College of Social Sciences and Philosophy, University of the Philippines Diliman (e-mail: He acknowledges Dr. Maria Lourdes Rebullida and Dean Michael Tan, who agreed to be his referring professor and confirmation signatory respectively, for the said essay contest.

[[3]] 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.

[[4]] 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.

[[5]] Robert Kaplan predicts that the 21st century’s defining battleground is going to be on water.

[[6]] 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)

[[7]] In 1994, the country physically lost Mischief Reef, which was at that time inside the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines, to China.

[[8]] 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).

[[9]] 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).

[[10]] 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.

[[11]] 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.

[[12]] Paul Rabinow, “The Foulcault Reader: An Introduction to Foulcault’s Thought” (Penguin, 1991)


14 thoughts on “The Filipino Youth in Geopolitical Context: Leveraging the Power of Social Media towards Online Political Engagement in the West Philippine Sea Dispute

  1. para skn malaki naitulong, like sa
    experienced ko. Marami akong nailike
    na pages talking about spratlys issue,
    then, dhil dun updated lage ako sa
    spratlys issue not only that issue but
    also in national issue at mdaling mapasa dhl dun nalalaman dn ng iba. Pero subalit sa gnitong pmmaraan at kadaling mpasa may mga taong mdaling mag init ang ulo at nkkagwa ng hnd kanaisnais katulad ng pag post ng mssma at pangbbatikos at dhl dito mas lumalala ang conflict ng dlawang partido. 🙂

    • Hi there! Tama ka. Mabisang pamamaraan talaga ang pagiging aktibo sa cyberspace para maging updated sa mga pangyayari. Kaya lamang isang negatibong aspeto nga nito ang mga pambabatikos na nagaganap online. Pero, kung iisipin natin ng mas mabuti… hindi ba mas mainam nga na nagkakaroon ng iba’t ibang panig tungkol sa ganitong mga isyu? Mas naiintindihan natin ang napakaraming mga istoryang nakapaloob sa mga isyu kung malalaman natin ang bawat anggulo ng pangyayari. Noong isinulat ko ang essay na ito ang nasa isip ko ay dapat magkaroon ng boses ang mga sektor kagaya ng kabataan dahil ang mga susunod na henerasyon din naman ang maaapektuhan sa mga kalalabasan ng mga suliraning kagaya nito. Maaaring sa simula ay nagkakaroon ng mga hindi pagkakaunawaan ngunit sa bandang huli ay naniniwala pa rin akong mareresolba ito at matututo ang bawat isa.

  2. I think you made a few spurious generalizations. First, is it proven that the West Philippine Sea is indeed resource-rich? I don’t think there is no concrete evidence yet about it, to think, say, the amount of actual gas reserves in a few oil-rich countries are still not yet determined. Secondly, to say that social media empower the Filipino citizenry about the issue is a bit too…hasty. How many of the Filipinos have access to these media and how will these empower them (mechanism?)?

    • Well, not really. It might not have been proven in the sense that the islands remain unexploited until now. But, there are, of course, strong evidences to show that the islands contain considerable amounts of resources. Remember that the resources, aside from territorial integrity, are the main mover for this dispute. Otherwise, the claimants wouldn’t have gone gaga over the group of islands if it were empty. In the second point, social media, in this sense, is a key component for the resource mobilization of the supposed advocacy campaign. Well, Filipinos are always on the top list of social network users worldwide. It’s a good indication that the social media is already a force to reckon in the country. This is also just a proposition on my part. So, there’s really no assurance if it will work. It’s something that needs to be tested. Regards.

  3. The internet is NOT [there, edited!] necessarily a positive force for change – like any medium, it is has no overriding logic or teleology. Burden mo to show not only that the Internet can be used for social change, but SHOULD. Kasama na rin dito ang questions of efficacy. Sure we can use the Internet, but is it necesarily effective? Why allocate scarce resources to “the Internet” (yes, in quotes) if we could better use said resources elsewhere (assuming of course, ineffectiveness)?

    Maybe a follow-up focusing on these concerns is warranted?

    • Michael, I might be mistaken but that was a self-contradicting statement there. “The Internet is NECESSARILY a POSITIVE force for change,” you said. Then you follow up with, “like any medium, it has NO OVERRIDING LOGIC or teleology.” Which is which? Do you think the Internet is positive or you think it is neutral?

      I would argue it has a logic, a teleology. I fundamentally disagree with your generalization that any medium has no teleology (i.e., inherent purpose). As McLuhan famously put it, “the medium is the message.” Each medium carries within itself a creative force. Each tool is designed for something, whether inherently or not.

      The Internet for example has rendered incoherent not only many of our old technologies such as the post mail, but many of our social practices as well, such as letter writing. It has cheapened communication and significantly rendered geopolitical borders irrelevant.

      The logic of the Internet, to be sure, cannot of course be pinned down so easily. I wouldn’t have put it as you did, “a positive force for change.” If any, the outstanding logic of the Internet is precisely its complexity.

      Regarding it’s effectiveness, that is something the Internet has to demonstrate and not something we can really theorize about.

      • Oops, typo. You know me better than that, Mark. 😛 It’s NOT NECESSARILY a positive force for change. Will edit my comment to reflect that.

        Anyway, re: teleology. I think what’s wrong with your analysis is your willingness to lump together the technologies of the Internet into one monolithic entity, when in fact the reality is much different. For example, Iran is building its own Internet-based national network, with the intention of closing off the country from what it considers poisonous foreign influences. At first glance it may seem like it’s part of “the Internet” but in fact it adopts the guise of the internet but operates as a different technology.

        Same with social networks and blogging sites. We can see that from a glance that LinkedIn, Facebook, and Tumblr work very differently from each other. Tumblr eschews the comment system used by sites like Livejournal and WordPress and instead opts for the reblogging system, which its CEO David Karp argues creates a different kind of discursive environment – one more conducive to sharing – than normal blog sites.

        You may be right that individual technologies of the Internet have a teleology, but it is reductive to say that the Internet as a whole (whatever that is) possesses an overriding logic. And even then, this logic is constantly evolving (and is not set in stone, unlike what most internet cheerleaders say). The teleology of a technology cannot be objectively defined. It is constructed by the people who use it and evolve norms for its use. One famous example is the camera. When cameras first became widespread, social observers lamented the death of privacy, as they predicted that its use would grow to cover all areas of everyday life. But obviously, that did not happen. “The internet” famously started out (although in a rudimentary form) as the Pentagon’s ARPANET, a means for the defense establishment to discreetly and securely share information with each other.

        The more we accept the complexity you ascribe to the Internet, rather than buy into ideas of it being inherently liberating or otherwise, we can move on and have a more nuanced discussion of what we can do and what should be done with its associated technologies. The problem I have with this piece is that lack of nuance. I’ve suggested Ferth tackle this in a followup. 🙂

  4. If the unproven resources are the main mover for the dispute between claimant states, aren’t their actions too irrational? The costs are too high.

    The internet is not accessible to most Filipinos. Most Filipinos are poor and don’t have access to the internet.


    • Well, it’s just a matter of weighing whether the costs outweigh the benefits. In this case, I do think that the potential benefits are higher than the costs. In other words, it still rational for them to pursue their claims. Again, social media and internet utilization is not the be-all and end-all of an advocacy work. At this age, it is already widely acknowledged that the social media is a necessary tool for the resource mobilization process. From what I know online advocacy campaign about this issue is working quite well for Vietnam. Vietnamese aren’t even nearly as internet savvy as the Filipinos. However, I am not in the position to warrant the degree of success of this modality within the context of the WPS dispute because I do not have the data to back me up. Regards.

  5. The potential resources housed by the islands in the WPS are not the only come-on for claimant states. What is perhaps more important is the strategic position of the WPS.

    Correct me if I am wrong but I remember that Michael Klare in Resource Wars identified the WPS as the best rout for ships from the Middle East and Europe going to the Pacific. It is actually a potential choke point. Control that spot and you exert control over international trade.

  6. I believe that you,the youth sector has important role to shape and be ready to get all your consciousness be one in one direction and develop in your heart that love of country is important element to make us great.

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