Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Filipino activists decide not to sail closer to disputed shoal, avoiding clash with Chinese ships

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MANILA, Philippines (AP) — About 100 Filipino activists on wooden boats have decided not to sail closer to a fiercely disputed shoal in the South China Sea on Thursday to avoid a confrontation with dozens of Chinese coast guard and suspected militia ships guarding the area.

Accompanied by journalists on four boats, the activists will distribute food packs and fuel to Filipino fishermen about 58 nautical miles (107 kilometers) southeast of Scarborough Shoal and then sail back home, Emman Hizon and other organizers said.

Chinese and Philippine coast guard and accompanying ships have had a series of increasingly hostile territorial faceoffs at Scarborough, which is surrounded by the Chinese coast guard, and at Philippine-occupied Second Thomas Shoal since last year. The Chinese ships have used powerful water cannons and employed blocking and other dangerous maneuvers that led to minor collisions, injured several Filipino navy personnel and strained diplomatic ties.

The United States has repeatedly warned that it’s obligated to defend the Philippines, its longtime treaty ally, if Filipino forces, ships or aircraft come under an armed attack in the region, including in the busy South China Sea. That has sparked fears a conflict could involve Washington if the territorial disputes escalate out of control.

The activists and fishing community leaders, who belong to a nongovernment coalition called Atin Ito, Tagalog for This is Ours, provided aid to Filipino fishermen and floated symbolic territorial buoys on Wednesday on their way to Scarborough’s outlying waters to assert Philippine sovereign rights over the atoll. But two Chinese coast guard ships started shadowing them Wednesday night, according to Hizon and the Philippine coast guard.

A group of 10 activists managed to evade the Chinese blockade by at least 46 ships in the outlying waters on Wednesday and distributed food and fuel to Filipinos fishing closer to the atoll. That was cited by the activists in declaring that their mission was a success.

“We managed to breach their illegal blockade, reaching the vicinity of Bajo de Masinloc to support our fishers with essential supplies,” said Rafaela David, an activist leader who led the voyage to the disputed waters. “Mission accomplished.”

The Philippine coast guard deployed three patrol ships and a light plane on Wednesday to keep watch on the activists, who set off from western Zambales province. Dozens of journalists joined the three-day voyage.

In December, the group mounted an expedition to another disputed shoal but cut the trip short after being tailed by a Chinese ship.

China effectively seized 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 territorial 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 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The ruling declared Scarborough Shoal a traditional fishing area for Chinese, Filipino and Vietnamese fishermen, but China refused to join the arbitration, rejected the ruling and continues to defy it.

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

The Philippines condemned the Chinese coast guard’s action at the shoal, which lies in Manila’s internationally recognized exclusive economic zone. The Chinese coast guard said it took a “necessary measure” after the Philippine ships “violated China’s sovereignty.”

Aside from the Philippines and China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have also been involved in the long-seething territorial disputes.

Indonesia has also had skirmishes with Chinese vessels in resource-rich waters stretching from its Natuna islands to the margins of the South China Sea, which Beijing has claimed virtually in its entirety.

The Indonesian navy has fired warning shots in the past and seized Chinese fishing boats it accused of encroaching into Indonesian waters.

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