Filipino civilian boats sail to disputed Scarborough Shoal in act of defiance against China 

On May 15, a flotilla of Filipino civilian boats set sail from a port in Masinloc to the disputed Scarborough Shoal, a rock within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that China has effectively seized and controlled since 2012, after reports that Beijing had mobilized dozens of ships to the area. The shoal is known as Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc locally.

Over 100 small wooden boats followed various slightly larger boats, which were loaded with fuel and food for distribution to Filipino fishermen near the disputed shoal, according to organizer Atin Ito! (This Is Ours!), a broad coalition of civilian organizations, including fishermen, students, priests, international observers, members of the media and volunteers.

Rafaela David, one of the participants, said the mission was peaceful based on international law to assert Philippines’ sovereignty. Volunteers displayed banners with the words “The Philippines is ours, China leave”, and also carried figurines of the Virgin Mary. 

On the way to Scarborough Shoal, at 14 nautical miles off Palauig Point in Zambales, within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile EEZ, the participants installed 12 symbolic buoys with the words “WPS, Atin Ito!” (WPS, This is Ours!) to stake Manila’s sovereignty. The disputed South China Sea is known locally as West Philippine Sea (WPS). Additionally, the participants disseminated 1,000 liters of fuel and 200 food packs to local fishermen.

“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.”

Although part of the convoy of civilian boats were blocked by Chinese vessels and did not reach Scarborough Shoal, the rest successfully reached the destination.

“Despite China’s massive blockade, we managed to breach their illegal blockade, reaching Bajo de Masinloc to support our fishers with essential supplies. Mission accomplished!” commented David.

“This stands as a testament to the ingenuity, resourcefulness and bravery of the Filipino spirit amidst formidable challenges. China may possess larger and more vessels, and wield strong water cannons, but we possess a secret weapon: our ‘diskarteng Pinoy’ which, when coupled with determination and love for fellow citizens and country, can surmount even the most daunting adversity,” David added. Diskarteng is Tagalog for resourceful.

On May 15, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson warned: “If the Philippine side abuses China’s goodwill and infringes on China’s territorial sovereignty and jurisdiction, China will safeguard its rights and take countermeasures in accordance with the law, and the responsibilities and consequences incurred will be borne entirely by the Philippine side.” 

On May 16, according to Chinese state media CGTN, the China Coast Guard were monitoring the Filipino boats, which had “illegally gathered in waters near Huangyan Island and carried out activities unrelated to normal fishing operations”, and that coast guard vessels had “lawfully regulated” the Filipino boats, and the enforcement activities were conducted in accordance with the law. 

China effectively took over Scarborough Shoal in 2012 by encircling it with its coast guard ships after a tense 2012 face-off with Philippine government ships. Riled by China’s action, the Philippine government brought the case to international arbitration in 2013, and a tribunal in the Hague ruled in 2016 that China’s expansive claims lacked legal grounds under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The ruling also stated that Scarborough Shoal is a traditional fishing area for Filipino fishermen. And in the past, fishermen have sought refuge in the shoal from huge waves in the high seas in bad weather. On its end, China dismissed the Hague’s ruling and continues to defy it to this day.  

In May, Chinese coast guard and militia ships used water cannons on Philippine coast guard and fisheries ships patrolling Scarborough Shoal, damaging both vessels. China justified its action, saying it took a “necessary measure” after the Philippine ships “violated China’s sovereignty”.

Increasing tensions between the Philippines and China has led to minor collisions, wounded Filipino navy personnel and damaged supply boats in recent months.

Photo credit: iStock/ VladimirFLoyd. Generic image of man with Philippine flag.

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