South China Sea Convoy Challenges Chinese Blockade

Filipinos are challenging Beijing’s maritime claims with a second protest flotilla, and an organizer told Newsweek the aim is to “civilianize, not militarize” the disputed part of the South China Sea.

The Atin Ito (it’s ours) Coalition, set off Wednesday morning to deliver supplies to Philippine fishermen and contest China’s claim on Scarborough Shoal.

The uninhabited atoll sits within the Southeast Asian country’s internationally recognized exclusive economic zone (EEZ). It is also one of the most contentious spots in the escalating territorial dispute. China seized effective control there in 2012 and has angered the Philippines by ejecting local fishermen from the traditional fishing grounds.

Protest organizer and former priest, Ed dela Torre, told Newsweek: “Our purpose is to civilianize the West Philippine Sea while China seeks to militarize it. We also want to exercise active citizenship to assert our rights to our EEZ, as our independent initiative to complement the Philippine government’s actions to exercise the rights recognized by international law.”

Comprising around 100 small fishing boats and a handful of larger commercial ones, it is the second effort under the Atin Ito banner in five months. In December, a similar mission in a different part of the Philippines’ EEZ was abandoned prematurely after a close encounter with shadowing Chinese forces.

Philippine fishermen are joined by the civilian-led Atin Ito (It’s Ours) Coalition in the South China Sea on May 15. The tiny boats continue to challenge China’s control of a reef off the Southeast Asian…

Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images

In addition to handing out supplies, members of the convoy have deployed buoys imprinted with “Atin Ito” in a message for China: “WPS-Atin Ito.” WPS stands for West Philippine Sea, Manila’s name for the portion of the South China Sea within its EEZ, where maritime law grants it sole access to resources.

“The second civilian mission has just crossed over from our territorial waters to our EEZ,” dela Torre announced at 11 a.m.

“After placing buoys, the five bigger fishing boats will sail to 30-20 nautical miles (26-17 miles) away from Bajo de Masinloc (a Philippine name for the atoll) to distribute fuel and food to the fishers in the area,” he told Newsweek.

The volunteers plan to reach Subic Bay, Luzon, in the Philippines proper by the early evening on Friday.

Ship tracking data shared on X, formerly Twitter, showed a total of 13 Chinese vessels sitting in and around Scarborough Shoal. These will likely include ships belonging to China’s paramilitary maritime militia, as well as the coast guard.

Chinese state media reported Monday that the country’s coast guard had been conducting “regular lifesaving training” off the reef, with an eye toward safeguarding Chinese fishermen operating nearby.

Philippine Fishermen Drop Buoys With a Message
Philippine fishermen beside buoys dropped by the civilian-led Atin Ito (It’s Ours) Coalition, in the South China Sea on May 15. They are protesting Beijing’s activities inside waters within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.

Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images

Philippine Coast Guard spokesperson Jay Tarriela told local media the agency was deploying at least one 144-foot cutter and an aircraft to keep an eye on the civilian mission.

The mission comes as the administration of Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr pushes back against Chinese expansion in the area, including shoring up military ties with the U.S. Last week, American and Philippine forces concluded the largest-yet annual Balikatan series of joint drills, which included the sinking of a China-made decommissioned warship.

The Philippine coast guard and Chinese embassy in the Philippines did not immediately respond to written requests by Newsweek for comment.

Asked for a response to the convoy, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said Wednesday that Scarborough Shoal, known in Beijing as Huangyan Island, is “China’s inherent territory.”

He warned that China would protect its rights and that the Philippines would be responsible for the consequences if the Philippines “abuses China’s goodwill and infringes on China’s territorial sovereignty.”

China asserts claims over some 90 percent of the energy-rich South China Sea, pitting it against the overlapping claims of the Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan.