South China Sea: huge civilian Filipino flotilla heads to disputed shoal to ‘assert sovereign rights’

A flotilla of about 100 mostly small fishing boats led by Filipino activists has set sail for a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, where Beijing’s coast guard and suspected militia ships have used powerful water cannon to ward off what they regard as intruders.

The Philippine coast guard and navy deployed one patrol ship each to keep watch from a distance on the activists and fishers, who set off on wooden boats with bamboo outriggers on Wednesday to assert Manila’s sovereignty over the Scarborough shoal. Dozens of journalists joined the three-day voyage.

Activists and volunteers, including a Roman Catholic priest, belonging to a non-government coalition called Atin Ito – Tagalog for This is Ours – planned to float small territorial buoys and distribute food packs and fuel to Filipino fishers near the shoal, organisers said, adding they were prepared for contingencies.

Filipino fishers are blessed by priests during a mass on Tuesday, on the eve of their voyage to Scarborough shoal. Photograph: Francis R Malasig/EPA

“Our mission is peaceful based on international law and aimed at asserting our sovereign rights,” said Rafaela David, a lead organiser. “We will sail with determination, not provocation, to civilianise the region and safeguard our territorial integrity.”

In December, David’s group also tried to sail to another disputed shoal but cut short the trip after being tailed by a Chinese ship.

China effectively seized the Scarborough Shoal, a triangle-shaped atoll with a vast fishing lagoon ringed by mostly submerged coral outcrops, by surrounding it with its coast guard ships after a tense 2012 standoff with Philippine government ships.

Angered by China’s action, the Philippine government brought the disputes to international arbitration in 2013 and largely won with a tribunal in The Hague ruling three years later that China’s expansive claims based on historical grounds in the busy seaway were invalid under the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The ruling declared the Scarborough Shoal a traditional fishing area for Chinese, Filipino and Vietnamese fishers. In the past, fishers have anchored in the shoal to avoid huge waves in the high seas in stormy weather.

China refused to participate in the arbitration, rejected the outcome and continues to defy it.

Map showing location of Scarborough Shoal and its proximity to China and the Philippines
Map showing location of Scarborough Shoal and its proximity to China and the Philippines

Two weeks ago, Chinese coast guard and suspected militia ships used water cannon on Philippine coast guard and fisheries boats patrolling the Scarborough Shoal, damaging both craft.

The Philippines condemned the Chinese coast guard’s action on the shoal, which lies in the south-east Asian nation’s internationally recognised exclusive economic zone. The Chinese coast guard said it took a “necessary measure” after the Philippine ships “violated China’s sovereignty”.

The Chinese coast guard has also reinstalled a floating barrier across the entrance to the shoal’s vast fishing lagoon, the Philippine coast guard said. The Philippine coast guard removed a similar barrier in the past to allow Filipinos to fish there.

In addition to the Philippines and China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have also been involved in the territorial disputes.

A civilian-led mission has been joined by at least a hundred fishers heading for Scarborough Shoal. Photograph: Francis R Malasig/EPA

Chinese coast guard ships had also ventured into waters close to Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia in the past, sparking tensions and protests, but those nations with considerable economic ties with China have not been as aggressively critical of Beijing’s increasingly assertive actions.

The Philippines has released videos of its territorial face-offs with China and invited journalists to witness the hostilities in the high seas in a strategy to gain international support, sparking a war of words with Beijing.

The increasing frequency of the skirmishes between the Philippines and China has led to minor collisions, injured Filipino navy personnel and damaged supply boats in recent months. It has sparked fears the territorial disputes could degenerate into an armed conflict between China and the United States, a longtime treaty ally of the Philippines.

The Guardian

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