Philippine boats sail towards disputed reef despite China warning

0

Philippine fishermen along with volunteers from a civilian-led mission Atin Ito Coalition aboard fishing boats arrive at a meeting point in South China Sea today. – AFP photo

SOUTH CHINA SEA (May 15): Civilians on board Philippine fishing boats sailed today towards a China-controlled reef off the Southeast Asian country, ignoring a warning by Beijing.

The trip to distribute help to Filipino fishermen and assert their rights to the disputed waterway comes two weeks after China Coast Guard vessels fired water cannons at two Philippine government boats near Scarborough Shoal.

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 several outrigger boats.

Three China Coast Guard vessels began shadowing the convoy at dusk as it moved closer to the shoal, issuing warnings that the participants heard on the boats’ radios, a convoy spokesman told reporters.

“Atin Ito will STILL proceed with its voyage,” convoy spokesman Emman Hizon wrote in a text to journalists using a local social media app.

This is the second civilian convoy organised by the Atin Ito group, whose name is Tagalog for “This is Ours”.

Hours earlier in Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin asserted China’s “indisputable sovereignty” over the shoal and warned Manila against actions that infringe on this position.

“China will lawfully safeguard its rights and take countermeasures,” Wang told reporters, and “responsibility and consequences will be borne entirely by the Philippines”.

Wang commented on the trip after the convoy, escorted by one Philippine Coast Guard patrol vessel, handed out fuel and bags of groceries to Filipino fishermen along the way 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 country.

“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.

‘The world is watching’

The Philippine Coast Guard said it is deploying two more of its vessels for escort duty for the rest of the trip.

The Scarborough Shoal has been a potential flashpoint since Beijing seized it from Manila in 2012.

The fish-rich reef is about 240 kilometres west of the Philippines’ main island of Luzon and nearly 900 kilometres 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 militarised.

The Scarborough Shoal has been a potential flashpoint since Beijing seized it from Manila in 2012.

The fish-rich reef is about 240 kilometres west of the Philippines’ main island of Luzon and nearly 900 kilometres 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 militarised.

“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 today.

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