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12 June 2021 – In commemoration of the Philippines’ 123rd Independence Day, Youth Leadership for Democracy (YouthLed) launched the third installment of its Democracy Talks themed “Usapang West Philippine Sea: Kabataan, Karagatan, Kalayaan,” which featured discussions from issue experts and insights from youth leaders.

Key experts presented an in-depth analysis of current issues and projected effects on the dispute between China and the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea (WPS). The event was streamed online via Zoom and Facebook with over 2000 views in its first 12 hours, focusing on young audiences.


On the Philippines vs. China territorial dispute

Dr. Renato de Castro, international relations and security expert, tackled the 2016 arbitral ruling emphasizing that China has no historical nor legal basis for claiming on the West Philippine Sea under customary laws and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). He explains further how China has successfully occupied Philippine territory by employing Gray Zone Operations or strategies: “China needs the West Philippine Sea and has spent billions of dollars to discredit the ruling and assert its baseless historical narrative as basis for sovereignty. China’s goal is to seek victory not in a decisive war but through incremental moves designed to gradually improve its diplomatic and strategic positions vis-a-vis these littoral Southeast Asian states.”


Director of the U.P. Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea Atty. Jay Batongbacal supported this assertion claiming that China does not have a valid historical claim to its infamous nine-dash line area (referring to the ill-defined demarcation line used by China for its share of the significant part of the South China Sea). According to him, “Philippines is fully entitled to full 200 nautical miles of Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). China, in the best-case scenario, can only occupy high seas areas and continental shelf which is nowhere near the Scarborough Shoal.”


Batongbacal further explained the importance of the WPS. “55% of the world’s fishing vessels operate in the WPS and South China region, and 27% of that is the Philippines’ commercial fisheries production. It is an important source of food for millions of Filipinos, and it is part of our national heritage and identity as a nation—not only now but also in future generations.” Data also show that the Kalayaan Group of Islands alone account for 30% of total coral reefs in the Philippines and that the 500 known species of food fishes are found in WPS.


According to Professor Victor Andres Manhit, President of Stratbase Albert del Rosario Institute, the dispute is nowhere near over, and we must work with our neighboring countries to help set the direction of the country’s defense posture. “The Indo-Pacific region needs to take a stronger stance against the issue. The Philippines is in a strategic position to harness the various opportunities presented by the convergence of foreign policies in the region.” He affirms that the country should utilize strategic partnerships in support of the interests of national security and other factors such as economic, technological innovations, trade, and investments.


Youth Perspectives on the WPS Dispute


The discussion also featured insights from the youth on how they can participate in this relevant issue and how they can support calls to enforce the arbitral ruling legally and peacefully.


Atty. Alex Gamboa, environmental & energy lawyer and public policy specialist, encouraged her fellow youth to take a strong position on the issue. She reiterated that as a maritime and archipelagic nation, “The sea is the spirit of the nation. We see the importance of this dispute as it is inherent in our history and our culture… We must assert these rights because the WPS has a huge role to play in our economy and our environment.”


Public school teacher and YouthLed Leadership and Democracy (LEAD) Fellow Riz Supreme Comia also emphasized that the youth are not just bystanders. She added, “Dapat tumayo tayo. Tumindig sa ating kwento at karapatan bilang archipelagic state; Aksyunan ang ating kaalaman, Yakagin ang iba na magsalita; at Organisahin ang mga kaibigan at grupo na tumindig na sumamama.”


LEAD Fellow Angela Maree Encomienda also shared reminded the youth to treat the issue with urgency and to find ways to communicate these rights to the Filipinos, “It’s not just a conversation about profit, it’s about our survival and identity.”


Democracy Talks is an online series of discussions to raise awareness on relevant issues, engage issue experts, and initiate discussions among the Filipino youth. YouthLed believes the participation of the Filipino youth has a vital role in preserving the country’s democracy, and this can start by giving the Filipino youth a safe space where they can learn from experts and ask questions.


YouthLed (Youth Leadership for Democracy) is a project of The Asia Foundation and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).


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