Philippines seeks to ensure safety of civilian mission in South China Sea

A China Coast Guard ship is seen from a Philippine fishing boat at the disputed Scarborough Shoal

MANILA (Reuters) -The Philippines has sent three coast guard vessels to ensure the safety of a civilian flotilla sailing to a shoal in the South China Sea, where Manila and Beijing have been embroiled in heated stand-offs over competing claims.

The three-day mission to hand out provisions for fishermen anchored at the contested Scarborough Shoal is being led by a group called Atin Ito (This is Ours), along with five commercial fishing vessels, organisers said. Around 100 smaller fishing boats will also join the initial part of the trip.

The coast guard was not part of the civilian mission which sailed on Wednesday, but it will provide safety and security for the civilian volunteers, Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) spokesperson Jay Tarriela told reporters.

A PCG aircraft deployed to monitor the situation at Scarborough Shoal on Wednesday spotted 19 Chinese vessels, including one Chinese navy ship around the area where PCG said it also monitored two floating barriers at the southeastern entrance of the shoal.

Chinese state broadcaster CCTV has reported the Chinese Coast Guard recently held routine drills at the shoal.Atin Ito led a similar mission in December to deliver supplies to troops stationed at Second Thomas Shoal, but it cut short its journey due to what it described as shadowing and harassment by Chinese coast guard ships.

China said on Wednesday it has indisputable sovereignty over the shoal which it calls Huangyan Island and its adjacent waters.

"If the Philippine side abuses China's goodwill and infringes on China's territorial sovereignty and jurisdiction, China will defend its rights in accordance with the law. The relevant responsibilities and consequences are entirely borne by the Philippine side," foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin told a media briefing.

Echoing the foreign ministry's comment, CCTV said Chinese Coast Guard conducted "routine rights protection and law enforcement activities" in waters around the disputed shoal on Wednesday.

The coast guard urged the Philippines to immediately "cease its violations" and said it would resolutely safeguard the country's territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, CCTV added.


Located inside Manila's exclusive economic zone, the Scarborough Shoal is coveted for its bountiful fish stocks and a stunning turquoise lagoon that provides safe haven for vessels during storms.

It was seized by China in 2012 after a stand-off with the Philippines, and Beijing has since maintained a constant deployment of coast guard and fishing trawlers, some accused by Manila of being maritime militia.

China has not acknowledged the presence of militia in the South China Sea.

"China's actions in the West Philippine Sea reveal not strength, but a glaring weakness," Rafaela David, a co-convenor of Atin Ito, said in a statement. "When it resorts to intimidating small, civilian fishing vessels with military might, it showcases a narrative built on fear rather than legitimate authority."

The West Philippine Sea (WPS) is Manila's term for waters in the South China Sea that fall within its 200-nautical mile EEZ.

Atin Ito said it has installed symbolic buoys within the Philippine EEZ containing the words "WPS ATIN ITO".

China claims almost all the South China Sea, including parts claimed by the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam.

A 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration found that China's sweeping claims have no legal basis.

(Reporting by Karen Lema; Additional reporting by Mei Mei Chu in Beijing; Editing by John Mair and Subhranshu Sahu)