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40-ship Philippine 'Christmas convoy' to visit disputed South China Sea islands

Convoy to provide supplies to Filipino troops, civilians on disputed islands

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Philippines deliberately ran Sierra Madre aground in 1999 to reinforce its sovereignty claims in South China Sea. (Reuters photo)

Philippines deliberately ran Sierra Madre aground in 1999 to reinforce its sovereignty claims in South China Sea. (Reuters photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — A convoy of 40 Philippine ships is scheduled to provide humanitarian supplies to Filipino troops and civilians on disputed islands in the South China Sea.

A group called Atin Ito Coalition is sending the ships to provide aid to troops on the Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin Shoal, Jen-ai An-sha) as well as three other disputed maritime features in the eastern South China Sea, which the Philippines call the West Philippines Sea, reported ABS-CBN. The convoy will depart from Palawan on Sunday (Dec. 10) and conduct a three-day mission to provide food, water, medical resources, and other supplies to civilians and troops in the disputed area, according to the coalition of civic organizations.

The group had initially wanted to directly supply the soldiers based on the BRP Sierra Madre, which has been grounded on Second Thomas Shoal since 1999 to serve as an outpost and maintain the Philippines' claim to the submerged reef. However, the Philippines National Security Council (NSC) decided that a direct journey to the reef "would not be advisable at this time, since the safety of the civilian convoy is of paramount consideration."

Instead, the NSC is allowing the convoy to sail within the "general vicinity" of the shoal. The vessels will be allowed to hand over the supplies to the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), which in turn will deliver the aid to the troops on the BRP Sierra Madre.

Akbayan party president Rafaela David told TeleRadyo Serbisyo on Nov. 29, “We will still go to the vicinity of Ayungin Shoal and hopefully we will get as near as possible, it depends on what is practical and safe," per The Philippine Star. The convoy will be allowed to visit other Philippine-occupied features including Flat Island (Patag Island), Nanshan Island (Lawak Island), and Thitu Island (Pag-asa Island).

Admiral Ronnie Gil Gavan was cited by the Philippine Daily Inquirer on Friday (Dec. 1) as saying that the PCG is "preparing our security personnel and positioning our vessels to uphold maritime security and safety during the three-day humanitarian initiative." Gavan added, “As our fellow Filipinos step foot on Pag-asa Island, we hope this experience will ignite the spirit of patriotism and inspire them to stand with us in safeguarding the country’s sovereign rights within our exclusive economic zones."

Manilla has expressed some reservations about the mission, with NSC Assistant Director General Jonathan Malaya on Nov. 30 being cited by ABS-CBN as saying that China may perceive the flotilla as a "Philippine version of swarming." On Sunday (Dec. 3), the Philippines announced that over 135 Chinese "maritime militia" vessels were "swarming" around Whitsun Reef (Julian Felipe Reef), according to the Japan Times.

China claims 90% of the South China Sea with its nine-dash line, while Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam dispute these claims. After the Philippines challenged China's claims in an international tribunal, the court ruled in 2016 that "there was no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or their resources."

Since 2013, China has constructed at least seven outposts in the Spratleys and 20 in the Paracel Islands and occupies the Scarborough Shoal. It has also installed runways and dozens of military aircraft hangars as well as missile batteries on many of these islands.