A risky but worthy venture

At first glance, the Christmas convoy to Ayungin Shoal that has some 40 civilian boats bringing supplies and presents to the crew of BRP Sierra Madre this month seems foolhardy.

The grounded vessel that serves as the country’s military outpost at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal has been a constant source of tension in the West Philippine Sea (WPS), with China claiming sovereignty over this feature 194 kilometers from Palawan, well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The rusting ship is meant to establish our country’s claim, sovereignty, and jurisdiction over the sandbank which had been upheld by the international arbitral tribunal in 2016.

With China asserting its own claims over the area, Chinese vessels have consistently tried to block routine resupply missions to the ship with dangerous maneuvers, including the use of water cannons and the ramming of a civilian vessel contracted by the Armed Forces of the Philippines last October.

Could a civilian-led convoy be any less vulnerable than the better-equipped maritime vessels of the AFP and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG)? Certainly not, so who couId blame the National Security Council (NSC) for describing the caravan’s planned sally into the shoal as “ill-advised,” considering “heightened tensions between the Philippines and China”?

General vicinity of Ayungin Shoal

Aside from the security risk, the NSC maintained that “our troops in Ayungin Shoal are well supplied by the Philippine Navy-AFP, supported by the PCG through the regular [resupply] missions,” and “[did not] need a civilian Christmas convoy mission at this time.”

After a constructive dialogue however, the council last week relented and allowed the caravan to pass through within “the general vicinity of Ayungin Shoal … on its way to other selected Philippine-occupied features.”

Jonathan Malaya, assistant director general and spokesperson of the NSC, said the agreement between the coalition led by Atin Ito “ensures the safety and security of the Christmas convoy, [the] timely delivery of donated items to the fisherfolk and frontliners, and upholds our sovereign rights to the WPS.”

The convoy is expected to depart from Palawan on Dec. 10 with the civilian boats allowed to visit Patag, Lawak, and Pag-asa islands where they can leave their gifts for the residents and soldiers stationed there. Those intended for the BRP Sierra Madre troops can be delivered by the PCG and Philippine Navy on their next resupply mission.

Defending our sovereignty

It’s a positive development that the caravan has hailed as “demonstrating the strength of unity in asserting and defending our sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

Said the Atin Ito coalition: “[L]et this [caravan] reinforce the belief that our country is stronger when united. Together, we will overcome challenges, safeguard what is rightfully ours, and ensure that future generations have access to the same maritime resources that have nourished our country for millennia.”

More importantly, the caravan is meant to “normalize civilian voyages to the West Philippine Sea. For each act of Chinese aggression, the Philippines must respond with more supply missions,” added the group that includes the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement, Akbayan Youth, Center for Agrarian Reform for Empowerment and Transformation, Pambansang Katipunan ng mga Samahan sa Kanayunan, and Pambansang Kilusan ng mga Samahang Magsasaka.

A political statement

Notwithstanding the shining idealism, touching patriotism, and unflinching determination of its members, the caravan is sailing into rough waters despite changing course into relatively safer parts of the West Philippine Sea. Despite the careful wordings and modification of its route, the caravan would be sending not just Christmas presents but a political statement. There’s no doubt that given the chance, the Chinese militia would take this opportunity to once more flex its muscles to chase off those that it considers as interlopers into its perceived territory.

With China’s pattern of intimidation, including the swarming of Julian Felipe Reef by some 135 Chinese militia ships last Dec. 2, the Christmas convoy is a risky venture and would need all the support that the AFP and the PCG can give by way of their close monitoring and escorting of the caravan and keeping a sharp eye out for Chinese vessels out to intercept or block the civilian-led initiative.

They must ensure a safe and unimpeded trip for the caravan as it is certainly within our country’s right to sail within our own EEZ and boost the morale of troops safeguarding Philippine sovereignty. Additionally, the government must continue to seek stronger ways and support from its allies to protest—and possibly repel—China’s continued intrusion into our country’s territorial waters.