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AT SEA,Undefined: A Philippine fishing boat speeds past buoys dropped by a civilian-led mission Atin Ito (It抯 Ours) Coalition, in South China Sea on May 15, 2024. -- AFP
AT SEA,Undefined: A Philippine fishing boat speeds past buoys dropped by a civilian-led mission Atin Ito (It抯 Ours) Coalition, in South China Sea on May 15, 2024. -- AFP

Philippine civilian convoy sails towards disputed reef

China Coast Guard shadows Philippine boats heading for shoal

SOUTH CHINA SEA, Undefined: Civilians on board Philippine fishing boats sailed Wednesday towards a China-controlled reef off the Southeast Asian country, handing out aid to Filipino fishermen and dropping buoys to assert their rights to the disputed waterway.

Meanwhile, China Coast Guard vessels on Wednesday began shadowing a convoy of Philippine civilian boats on their way to a disputed South China Sea shoal, a convoy spokesman said. Three clearly marked coast guard vessels sailed within sight of the convoy at dusk and broadcast radio warnings heard aboard one of the Philippine boats as the convoy moved closer to Scarborough Shoal, convoy spokesman Emman Hizon told reporters.

The trip to the waters around Scarborough Shoal comes two weeks after China Coast Guard vessels fired water cannon at two Philippine government boats in the same area, in the latest maritime incident between the countries. Waving small national flags and chanting “the Philippines is ours, China out!”, about 200 people boarded five commercial fishing vessels that sailed out of a northern port in the morning, escorted by a number of outrigger boats.

A few hours later, a lone Philippine Coast Guard boat met the convoy in open seas and stood guard as it handed out food and fuel to Filipino fishermen, who sometimes spend weeks out at sea, and dropped a dozen orange buoys marked “WPS is Ours”.

WPS is the acronym for the West Philippine Sea, Manila’s name for the South China Sea waters immediately west of the Philippines. “The Chinese drove us away. That always happens whenever we try to go to Scarborough Shoal. They always drive us away,” fisherman Jay-ar Hilig told AFP as he waited for his turn to receive diesel fuel and a plastic grocery bag.

“This is for the Chinese to see that we Filipinos are united in wanting to take back Scarborough Shoal,” added fellow fisherman Luis Pontillas. No Chinese navy or coast guard vessels were in the area as the aid distribution took place, an AFP team aboard the Filipino coast guard vessel said.

The group had said it received reports of a “heavy presence” of Chinese vessels near Scarborough Shoal, which is called Panatag Shoal in the Philippines. Later, the group issued a statement saying it would “proceed to the second phase of its voyage, aiming to reach the vicinity of Panatag Shoal for another round of supply distribution to Filipino fisherfolk in the area”.

A spokesman for the convoy told reporters via a messaging app that it was “still far from the shoal”, while the Philippine Coast Guard said in Manila that it was deploying more vessels for escort duty. In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin asserted Wednesday that China had “indisputable sovereignty” over Scarborough Shoal.

“If the Philippines abuses China’s goodwill and infringes on China’s territorial sovereignty and jurisdiction, China will lawfully safeguard its rights and take countermeasures,” he told reporters.

“Relevant responsibility and consequences will be borne entirely by the Philippines.” The Scarborough Shoal has been a potential flashpoint since Beijing seized it from Manila in 2012.

The fish-rich reef is about 240 kilometers (150 miles) west of the Philippines’ main island of Luzon and nearly 900 kilometers from Hainan, the nearest major Chinese land mass. China claims almost the entire South China Sea, brushing off rival claims by the Philippines and other countries, and ignoring an international ruling that its assertion has no legal basis.

To press its claims, Beijing deploys coast guard and other boats to patrol the waterway and has turned several reefs into artificial islands that it has militarized. “This civilian supply mission is not just about delivering supplies, it’s about reaffirming our presence and rights in our own waters,” convoy organiser Edicio Dela Torre said in a statement Wednesday.

“The world is watching, and the narrative of rightful ownership and peaceful assertion is clearly on our side,” he added. Tensions over the disputed waters and reefs have intensified in the past 18 months as Manila has pushed back against China’s growing assertiveness.

This is the second civilian convoy organized by the Atin Ito group, whose name is Tagalog for “This is Ours”. A previous trip to the South China Sea in December was aborted due to shadowing by Chinese vessels. — AFP

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