It looked, for a time, as if Christmas had been cancelled. A Philippine mission by volunteers to bring the festive spirit to the fishers, troops and coastguard crew in the disputed South China Sea was forced to turn back on Sunday after organisers said they had been shadowed and intercepted by Chinese vessels.
But it later emerged that a smaller supply boat had managed to slip past the Chinese vessels.
Christmas presents, donated by the public, were dropped off at Nanshan Island, which is known in the Philippines as Lawak Island, in the Spratly Islands, at 5am on Monday morning by the fishing boat, which had travelled separately from the main Christmas convoy – a group of about 40 boats decorated in Santa and nativity figures.
Rafaela David, an organiser of the mission, said she was “overjoyed” that the goods had made it. Solar lamps, medicines and vitamins, toys and traditional Christmas food packages were among the presents handed over.
“At the end of the day, that’s the most crucial aspect of the mission – that we are able to deliver the Christmas gifts,” said David, the president of the Akbayan party, which is a co-convener of Atin Ito, the coalition that organised the trip.
Some volunteers on the mother ship had cried in frustration when they heard the captain’s decision that it was too dangerous to continue travelling, David said.
Organisers said the decision was taken after they were shadowed by four Chinese vessels, including two navy ships, one cargo ship and a coastguard ship, which had approached as a priest on board the mother ship gave Holy Mass.
“We think that was really the crucial point when the captain made the judgment call – because of the dangerous manoeuvres of the Chinese vessel,” said David.
Holy Mass was briefly interrupted, but continued on the deck of the Christmas mothership, as it turned around to return to El Nido, according to reports of media onboard.
China claims the South China Sea almost entirely, despite a 2015 ruling by international tribunal in The Hague finding this to be without legal basis. Over the past year, the Philippines has frequently accused Chinese vessels of aggressive and dangerous behaviour within Manila’s exclusive economic zone, which it refers to as the West Philippine Sea.
It appears the main festive flotilla was perhaps a distraction. Organisers had decided early during the convoy that a smaller supply boat, the most crucial in the mission, should take a different route and not go with the main group to the vicinity of Second Thomas Shoal, which is a major flashpoint.
“Because everybody was looking at the main convoy and the mother ship, what they didn’t know was that ML Chowee [the supply boat] was already in safer, more shallow waters, and was able to sneak past all the tension,” said David.
The delivery came after a tense weekend in which the Philippines accused Chinese vessels of “unprovoked acts of coercion and dangerous manoeuvres” after its vessels and equipment were damaged in two separate incidents. On Sunday, the Philippines accused China of firing water cannon and ramming one of its re-supply vessels near Second Thomas Shoal, causing “serious engine damage” to one vessel.
A day earlier, the Philippines said Chinese vessels had fired water cannon at a civilian government boat near Scarborough Shoal, and used what it understood to be a long-range acoustic device. Both incidents occurred within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
China’s foreign ministry spokesperson, Mao Ning, said at a recent press briefing that its Coast Guard had taken “necessary measures in accordance with the law, which were professional, restrained, lawful and legitimate”.
Organisers said they wanted to send a message to China that the Philippines will not be bullied, and to show support to fishing communities whose livelihoods have suffered as a result of overfishing or harassment by Chinese vessels, as well as the troops and coastguard officials who are on the frontlines of the dispute.
While about a third of the donations were dropped at Philippine-held Nanshan Island, the rest of the donations will be given to the Philippine Coast Guard to deliver to other locations.
Many of the volunteers who took part are already determined to organise similar missions in the future, said David.
“We have always said this is an inaugural mission and our goal is to normalise and regularise our presence in the West Philippine Sea – because Filipino presence there should not even be a controversial topic,” she added. “We Filipinos should have access to it.”
Source : The Guardian