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Opinion

What will it take for Filipinos to fight for a piece of the ocean?

West Philippine Sea a metaphor for national decline in the Duterte era

| Philippines
Members of the Philippine Coast Guard patrol beside Chinese vessels moored at Whitsun Reef, South China Sea on Apr, 14: there was hardly any sign of resistance from President Duterte.   © Philippine Coast Guard/AP

Criselda Yabes is a journalist based in the Philippines. She is author of "The Battle of Marawi," her 10th book, which was published last year.

Nearly 10 years ago, the Philippines stamped a new name on our archipelago's map: the West Philippine Sea.

The maritime territory that was around or adjacent to the tiny Philippine-held island of Thitu in the middle of the hotly disputed Spratly Islands was meant to add significance to Philippine patrimony, as well as counter China's nine-dash line claims over the entire South China Sea.

In that swath of water, the Philippines has rights to an exclusive economic zone 200 nautical miles (370 km) from the western shores of a country shaped like an old man holding a cane -- the cane being the island province of Palawan, which juts out into the South China Sea and is today at the center of the territorial wrangling brought on by Chinese aggression. For a country that had taken maritime zones for granted, Palawan is the West Philippine Sea.

While there is evidently no fight against the might of a giant neighbor that has succeeded in building artificial islands dredged from the bottom of the sea near the Philippines, China's claims have upset the regional balance.

For the Philippines, naming these waters the West Philippine Sea was as an act of defiance, an unusual move for a people with a tendency to shape their boundaries only from within, in alignment with its political ethnographic clans. To many, anything beyond the daily business of the islands seems opaque.

And there is no telling how much Filipinos understood this: a name to stir patriotism, a geographical concept that's supposed to change a view of the horizon. Filipinos, in general, have such a poor sense of orientation. Have they been able to equate the measuring of distances, the difference between east and west, north and south, to the sanctity of their sovereign rights? What would it take for Filipinos to fight for their country over a piece of the ocean?

No leader since the post-dictatorship era has befuddled the territorial issues more than President Rodrigo Duterte ever has. He bends over to China's disposition; when Chinese militia vessels were found swarming Whitsun Reef near Thitu Island in March, there was hardly any sign of resistance from him.

The Permanent Court of Arbitration's 2016 South China Sea ruling in the Philippines' favor, which was published the day before Duterte was sworn into office, was, in the president's dismissive words, a piece of paper worth throwing in the trash. The case was filed by the previous administration, which he treats with scorn.

Still, no leader has so brazenly squandered hard-earned leverage to salvage even an ounce of their country's pride to keep history in the right.

Duterte later backed out of a debate over the West Philippine Sea -- though it was he who raised the challenge -- with former Supreme Court Justice Antonio Carpio, who has been a stalwart in defending Philippine sovereignty.

Possibly reacting to social media charges that he was a coward, Duterte instead invited 97-year-old former Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile, who has been convicted of graft and known to change historical versions to suit his purposes, in his late-night weekly television address, a sight so surreal that one journalist called it on Facebook "an adult Pampers party."

If it seems hopeless to reverse the president's stance, the issue will certainly be raised in next year's presidential election.

It will be up to the Philippine youth age 29 and below, who make up nearly 60% of the country's 110 million people, to change the course of politics. It has been said that younger Filipinos have lost their sense of patriotism, in part due to the slackening pool of educators that teach history as drudgery.

Students display placards to call for an end to President Duterte's rising dictatorship in February 2018: it will be up to the Philippine youth to change the course of politics.   © AP

Germaine Reyes, managing director of the market research firm Synergy, told me that today's younger generation, looking for relevance, have stood behind causes such as green lifestyles and tolerant attitudes. "What's not yet clearly established," she said, "is whether their collective civic consciousness also embraces the idea of love and pride for country, honor and a strong sense of history."

Questions of sovereignty and the finer points of the law of the sea, even for the Marines that will be part of a Naval coastal defense brigade, have to be broken down to simple comprehension. People have to know the black and white of the issues because the sea has been pushed too far out of sight by our politicians, making the country unsteady.

The ideas behind designating a body of water as the West Philippine Sea have consequently given the Philippines a test that will, at some point, force a nation to come to terms with its sense of patriotism.

Duterte revealed much when he said that anyone who believed his 2016 campaign pledge that he would ride a jet ski bike to stop China from encroaching into Philippine waters must be "stupid."

When voters choose a new president next year, will younger generations defy the course Duterte has set our nation on? Political science professor Clarita Carlos summed it up: "Corny as it may sound, [their] vote will change the face of our politics; that's really the bottom line."

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