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UPDATE: Philippine Civilian Boat Convoy Won’t Proceed to China-Held Reef

A China Coast Guard ship monitors Philippine fishermen aboard their wooden boats during the distribution of fuel and food to fishers by the civilian-led mission Atin Ito (This Is Ours) Coalition, in the disputed South China Sea on May 16, 2024. Ted ALJIBE / AFP

A Philippine boat convoy bearing supplies for Filipino fishers said it was headed back to port Thursday. It had ditched plans to sail to a Beijing-held reef off the Southeast Asian country after one of its boats was “constantly shadowed” by a Chinese vessel.

The Atin Ito (“This Is Ours”) coalition convoy set sail Wednesday to distribute fuel and food to fishers and assert Philippine rights in the disputed South China Sea, which Beijing claims nearly entirely despite an international ruling against its assertion.

The voyage comes about two weeks after Manila — which has competing claims in the sea — said China Coast Guard vessels damaged two Philippine government boats with high-pressure water cannon near Scarborough Shoal.

“They will now proceed to the Subic fish port to mark the end of their successful mission,” the group said in a statement.

A Philippine Coast Guard vessel escorting the convoy was also returning to the same port, located north of Manila, the government agency said.

The convoy earlier learned via radio from fishers on boats near Scarborough Shoal “that they had been chased away by the Chinese,” Emman Hizon, a spokesman for the non-government group, told AFP.

But he said its “advance team” distributed fuel and other assistance to Filipino fishermen on Wednesday about 46-56 kilometres (29-35 miles) from the shoal, declaring “mission accomplished”.

The advance team boat, which returned to a Philippine port on Thursday morning, was “able to distribute aid despite being constantly shadowed by a Chinese Navy vessel,” Hizon told AFP.

A reconnaissance flight saw 19 Chinese vessels, including a warship and eight coast guard vessels, around the shoal on Wednesday, the Philippine Coast Guard said.

It said the main contingent of the Filipino convoy, comprising four wooden-hulled fishing boats, was still being tracked by nearby China Coast Guard vessels Thursday even as it sailed away from the shoal.

The shadowing began at dusk Wednesday as the boats moved closer to the shoal. The Chinese vessels issued warnings that the participants heard on their radios.

Asked about the allegations that Chinese vessels drove off Filipino fishers, the Chinese embassy in Manila referred to a foreign ministry spokesman’s warning on Wednesday against any attempt to infringe on Beijing’s “indisputable sovereignty” over Scarborough Shoal.

Potential Flashpoint

The fish-rich reef has been a potential flashpoint since Beijing seized it from Manila in 2012.

It is about 240 kilometers west of the Philippines’ main island of Luzon and nearly 900 kilometers from Hainan, the nearest major Chinese land mass.

Atin Ito convoy organiser Edicio Dela Torre said Wednesday that the group’s “civilian supply mission is not just about delivering supplies, it’s about reaffirming our presence and rights in our own waters”.

“The world is watching, and the narrative of rightful ownership and peaceful assertion is clearly on our side,” he added.

The head of the coalition, Rafaela David, said in a statement Thursday: “Despite China’s massive blockade, we managed to breach their illegal blockade, reaching Bajo de Masinloc (local name for Scarborough Shoal) to support our fishers with essential supplies.”

In claiming almost the entire South China Sea, China has brushed off rival claims by the Philippines and other countries and ignored the 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 militarised.

Maritime confrontations between China and the Philippines in the disputed waterway have raised fears of a wider conflict that could involve the United States and other allies.

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