(UPDATE) THE civilian-led “Christmas convoy” to the West Philippine Sea (WPS) was asked to skirt the Philippine outpost aboard the BRP Sierra Madre on Ayungin Shoal, the National Security Council (NCS) said, as Chinese ships massed in the contested area days before the convoy sailed.
Chinese vessels were also spotted along the Mischief (Panganiban Reef) even when this was not included in the itinerary of the 40 youth and student leaders and fisherfolk on board the MV Kapitan Oca that sailed on Friday.
The NSC said it did not give the group, calling itself “Atin Ito” (This is ours), permission to drop off the gifts and donations to the Filipino troops in Sierra Madre for security reasons.
The NSC said it allowed the convoy to visit Pag-asa Island to turn over the goods that would later be delivered to the troops in Sierra Madre in the next rotation and resupply mission.
The supplies consist of noche buena packs, solar lamps, sacks of rice, canned goods, hygiene kits, gadgets and toys.
United States-based security expert Ray Powell said there was evidence that the China Coast Guard (CCG) and Chinese Maritime Militia believed a Philippine resupply mission was coming.
Powell, who also heads Project Myoushu at Stanford University’s Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation and SeaLight, said within the past 24 hours, just before the civilian convoy departed on the first leg of its voyage to bring holiday cheer to military troops stationed around the West Philippine Sea, eight of China’s large Qiong Sansha Yu militia ships sailed in from stations 130-300 kilometers away into the Chinese Panganiban Reef military base.
He described the gathering as “one of the largest concentrations of force ever observed,” 40 kilometers away from Ayungin.
He said this brought the total number of this ship type in the Panganiban Reef-Ayungin Shoal area to 27, in addition to at least two large CCG vessels, 5305 and 5402, that can be seen in the same area. These ships were frequently monitored participating in blockade activities.
Four large People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy vessels (Type 52C and 52D Destroyers) and three smaller CCG ships (a Type 72 II Landing Ship, a Type 53H3 Light Frigate and a CCG Hulai II Class) were among those anchored along the pier at Panganiban.
The convoy started its sail from Manila to El Nido in Palawan on Friday.
Organizers said the contingent of 40 volunteers would be joined by others once they reached Palawan.
The group is expected to sail and pass through the general vicinity of Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal on its way to other selected Philippine-occupied features.
Edicio de la Torre, convenor of the Atin Ito campaign, told The Manila Times on Saturday that the convoy was pushing through as planned despite the Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough) incident.
De la Torre said what happened in Bajo de Masinloc would not directly affect their voyage.
“The Christmas convoy is still going. We will be guided by the Coast Guard’s judgment of any risk or threat and how we should respond,” he said.
Palawan joins WPS convoy
Meanwhile, members of a multi-sectoral alliance in Palawan will join the Christmas convoy to the WPS on Sunday, December 10.
The Palawan Patriots for Peace and Progress, which consists of “freedom-loving” individuals from the province’s 3rd district, will take the lead.
They will be joined by members of the academe and environmental protection and youth empowerment organizations.
Palawan Patriots convenor Joaquin Ortega said the purpose of joining the convoy was to uphold Philippine interests in the WPS and exercise the country’s sovereign rights over the waters and the exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
Joining them is an alliance consisting of Ahon Palaweño, Chef Aiza’s Community Kitchen, Environmental Legal Assistance Center, Palawenyo Savers Club, Pioneer Publication of Palawan State University, and Saguda Palawan.
The group sought help from Speaker Ferdinand Martin Romualdez, who is taking care of Palawan’s 3rd district after the death of Rep. Edward Hagedorn.