Filipino civilian convoy departs for Scarborough Shoal, demands ‘China leave’

Beijing warns Manila against violating its “sovereignty” over the disputed South China Sea territory.
Jojo Riñoza and Camille Elemia
South China Sea and Manila
Filipino civilian convoy departs for Scarborough Shoal, demands ‘China leave’ Filipino fishermen aboard small wooden boats join the first part of the civilian convoy from Masinloc port in Zambales province, Philippines, May 15, 2024.
Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews

UPDATED at 2:33 p.m. ET on 2024-05-16

A convoy of Filipino civilian boats set sail on Wednesday in a show of defiance to assert Manila’s claim over a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, amid reports that Beijing had deployed dozens of ships to the area.

More than 100 small wooden boats accompanied the convoy of several slightly larger boats, which were loaded with fuel and food as they departed for Scarborough Shoal, a rock within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that China has effectively controlled since 2012.

The voyage is being led by Atin Ito! (This Is Ours!), a broad coalition of nationalist and civilian organizations. 

“The Philippines is ours, China leave,” some volunteers chanted as they carried posters with the same message. Catholic volunteers brought figurines of the Virgin Mary aboard the boats.

The flotilla set sail after 7 a.m. from a port in Masinloc, a town on the west coast of Luzon, the largest island in the Philippines. Later in the day, the small boats returned to shore while four of the main boats continued with their voyage to Scarborough Shoal, known as Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc in the Philippines.

A few hours after their morning departure, the flotilla conducted what organizers called “a peace and solidarity regatta” about 20 nautical miles off Masinloc.

At around 11 a.m., participants placed 12 symbolic buoys to assert Manila’s sovereign rights over the West Philippine Sea, Manila’s name for South China Sea waters within its EEZ. They also distributed food and fuel supplies to some fishers in the area before the small boats returned to shore and the larger ones continued with their journey.

“At least, we are now showing the world that Filipinos are fighting back,” Agustin Bustillo, 55, captain of one of the bigger fishing boats, told BenarNews. “But I hope the problem will be settled through peaceful means.”

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One of the five main fishing boats used in the Filipino civilian convoy prepares to depart for Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, May 15, 2024. [Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews]

A BenarNews reporter was among a group of journalists aboard one of the civilian boats heading to the shoal.

At around 6 p.m., two China Coast Guard (CCG) ships were seen shadowing and trying to block the civilian boats, which were still far away from their destination.

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), which had sent three ships to protect the civilians, said one of the CCG ships was about 1,800 yards (1,650 meters) from the convoy, while the other was a mile away as of early evening. 

The two coast guards exchanged radio challenges, both insisting their countries’ jurisdiction over the area even as the civilian convoy decided to continue its course to the shoal.

“They are trying to divide the contingent. Our boats are exercising evasive maneuvers while the PCG continues to maintain its close distance to the convoy to thwart any further attempt from CCG vessels,” Emman Hizon, one of the convoy’s organizers, told reporters.

Volunteer Aira Villamil, 21, said she felt mixed emotions while witnessing China’s actions at sea. While defiant, she said she feared what might happen.

“It’s scary because they are deliberately trying to block us while we are passing. It is super scary because we don’t know what they’ll do to us,” she told BenarNews in an interview aboard one of the fishing boats.

Asked about the civilian convoy on Wednesday, China asserted its sovereignty over the shoal, which it calls Huangyan Dao. It also warned the Philippines against violating Beijing’s jurisdiction.

“If the Philippines abuses China’s goodwill and infringes upon China’s territorial sovereignty and jurisdiction, we will defend our rights and take countermeasures in accordance with the law. Relevant responsibilities and consequences shall be borne solely by the Philippines,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin told reporters in Beijing.

Expected standoff

The resource-rich Scarborough Shoal lies within Manila’s 200-nautical mile EEZ, as mandated under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). But it has been under Beijing’s de facto control since 2012, when China wrested control from the Philippines after a weeks-long standoff.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea. In 2016, after Manila sued Beijing, an international court invalidated China’s expansive claims and ruled that the shoal is a traditional fishing ground for the Philippines, Vietnam, and China. Beijing has refused to acknowledge the ruling, asserting what it calls historical claims over the waters.

Wednesday’s voyage is Atin Ito!’s second supply mission to the West Philippine Sea. In December 2023, it set out to deliver supplies and Christmas gifts to Filipino troops stationed aboard the BRP Sierra Madre at Second Thomas (Ayungin) Shoal, but the convoy was forced to turn back after consistent shadowing by Chinese ships.

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Filipino fishermen place symbolic buoys carrying the message “WPS, Atin Ito!” (“West Philippine Sea, this is ours!”) in waters within the nation’s 200 nautical-mile exclusive economic zone, May 15, 2024. [Jojo Riñoza/BenarNews]

The convoy is expected to arrive near the shoal early Thursday to distribute supplies to Filipino fishermen operating in waters around the shoal. Because of the expected presence of Chinese ships, organizers do not know if they will be able to reach their destination.

Days before the convoy set sail, Beijing sent ships to the area, with Chinese state media reporting on Monday that the CCG was conducting training in Huangyan Dao. This was on top of the constant presence of two or three Chinese ships.  

In a post on X (formerly Twitter) Ray Powell, who heads Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation and monitors activities in the South China Sea, said a Chinese force of 43 ships was stationed near the shoal, seemingly ready to face the civilian flotilla.

Two weeks ago, on April 30, CCG ships fired water cannon at Manila’s government ships near the shoal, causing damage. 

The Philippine government summoned Zhou Zhiyong, the deputy chief of mission at the Chinese embassy in Manila, and “demanded that Chinese vessels leave Bajo de Masinloc and its vicinity immediately.” 

China claimed those operations were “professional, standardized and legal,” saying the Philippines’ actions infringed on Beijing’s sovereignty over the area and violated “international law and basic norms of international relations.”

The Philippine civilians remained unfazed despite the risks. Rafaela David, one of the Atin Ito! organizers, said the convoy was seeking to “normalize” access to the West Philippine Sea.

“If China is militarizing our own EEZ, we’re there to civilianize our own seas because at the end of the day, we stand by the belief that the West Philippine Sea should be accessible to ordinary citizens,” David told reporters in Botolan, a town in Zambales province, on the even of the trip.

Days before the mission, Global Times, the Chinese Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, accused the group of being funded by the United States and planning to provoke China. The group denied it.

“We have our own minds,” Edicio dela Torre, 80, a former priest turned activist and one of the coalition’s leaders, said during the same briefing on Tuesday. “China does not believe in civilian actions because they think all these are part of the government.”

David said China’s reaction shows it was rattled by the civilian movement.

“Ordinary Filipinos are coming hand-in-hand in peaceful means, showing they are not intimidated by someone as big as China,” he said.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this report incorrectly stated that the Philippine civilian boats were “hundreds of miles” from their destination when China Coast Guard ships were seen shadowing them on Wednesday night.


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