A Philippine mission to bring Santa Claus to the South China Sea to spread holiday cheer to fisherfolk, troops and coastguard officials was cut short after their convey was shadowed by several Chinese vessels which organisers said carried out “dangerous manoeuvres”.
The flotilla of 40 fishing boats loaded with Christmas donations, Father Christmas figurines and nativity displays set sail from El Nido in Palawan province at 1am local time on Sunday (1700 GMT Saturday), on its way to disputed areas that Beijing claims, without legal grounds, as its own.
The trip, organised by the coalition Atin Ito, meaning “It’s ours”, involved dozens of volunteers, including youth leaders, faith leaders and fishers, and planned to deliver supplies donated by the public.
“We want to send a strong message that a small country like us, the Philippines, will not be silenced or bullied by China,” said Rafaela David, the president of the Akbayan party, which is a co-convener of Atin Ito.
The coalition said in a later statement, however, that it was “erring on the side of caution” after consultations with the Philippine coastguard and planned to return, after “the constant shadowing of four Chinese vessels, comprised of two Chinese navy ships, one Chinese coastguard vessel and one Chinese cargo ship”.
Chinese vessels began shadowing the convoy’s primary vessel at 3:40pm, south of Southern Bank, in the disputed Spratly Islands, Atin Ito said.
“A Chinese navy warship travelling in the opposite direction and another shadowing closely heightened concerns,” the coalition said, adding that one of the most dangerous moments occurred when a “fast-moving Chinese Coast Guard ship reportedly intersected” with a Philippine Coast Guard vessel that was escorting the convoy.
The Philippines also accused China of “unprovoked acts of coercion and dangerous manoeuvres” in the region after its vessels and equipment were damaged in two separate incidents.
Officials accused the coastguard on Sunday of firing water cannon and ramming one of its re-supply vessels, causing “serious engine damage” to one vessel.
The incident happened in the vicinity of Second Thomas Shoal, where a small contingent of troops lives onboard a rusting warship that was deliberately run aground in 1999 to protect Manila’s claims.
China said Philippine vessels had “illegally entered” the waters adjacent to the shoal “without the approval of the Chinese government”. It also said the Philippine vessel had intentionally rammed its ship.
China has frequently blocked Philippine re-supply missions from reaching troops stationed at the shoal, which is within Manila’s exclusive economic zone.
The maritime confrontations over the weekend provoked condemnation from several embassies in the Philippines. The EU ambassador, Luc Véron, described the events as troubling, and his Australian counterpart, HK Yu, said China’s “dangerous actions” against Philippine vessels “risk lives and livelihoods”. New Zealand and Japan also expressed concern.
A day earlier, the Philippines had accused Chinese vessels of firing water cannon at a civilian government boat near Scarborough Shoal, and of using what it understood to be a long-range acoustic device that caused “severe temporary discomfort and incapacitation to some Filipino crew”.
The South China Sea, one of the world’s most strategically and economically important bodies of water, is fiercely contested. It is claimed almost entirely by China, but the Philippines and neighbouring countries have competing claims. An international tribunal in The Hague ruled against China’s claims in 2016, but Beijing has ignored the ruling.
Tensions between China and the Philippines have intensified over the past year, with the Philippines frequently accusing Beijing of dangerous and aggressive behaviour. Analysts have said such incidents, which have become more frequent, risk putting China in direct confrontation with the US, which counts the Philippines as its oldest treaty ally in Asia.
The US ambassador to the Philippines, MaryKay L Carlson, said on Sunday that Washington “stands with the Philippines and partners in vehemently condemning” China’s “repeated illegal and dangerous actions against Philippine vessels”.
The Christmas mission had intended to give donations to troops and fishing communities of packages including pasta, ham and cheese, and decorations depicting nativity scenes, traditional lanterns, toys for children and basic necessities such as solar-powered lights.
Fishing communities have for years complained that their catches are shrinking, blaming overfishing and other activities by China, including harassment by Chinese vessels.
The amount of donations given by the public reflected “a sense of solidarity that Filipinos feel especially when they see our fishermen or our coastguard being harassed by China,” said David. “We cannot help but feel a sense of indignation for what China is doing to our fellow Filipinos.”
The donations will now be handed over to the Philippine coastguard so that it can distribute items.
After the cancellation of the mission, David said in a statement: “As Filipinos, we are united in the fight for what is rightfully ours. Let’s not lose sight of the true threat within our territory. As China intensifies its aggression within our territory, we should also scale up our unity.”
Source : The Guardian