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Chinese coast guard shadows Filipino activists sailing toward disputed shoal

MANILA, Philippines — (AP) — Chinese coast guard ships shadowed a group of Filipino activists and fishermen sailing on wooden boats towards toward a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, which Beijing has fiercely guarded from what it regards as intruders.

The Philippine coast guard deployed three patrol ships and a light plane to keep watch from a distance on the group of about 100 people, who set off from western Zambales province to assert Manila’s sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal and surrounding waters. Dozens of journalists joined the three-day voyage.

The navy also dispatched a ship to help keep an eye on the participants.

The four wooden boats carrying the Filipinos were still far from the shoal when at least two Chinese coast guard ships began shadowing them at nightfall, said Emman Hizon, one of the organizers, adding that the participants remained in high spirits and would not turn back.

Some chanted “Atin Ito” — the name of the group, which means “This is ours” in Tagalog — repeatedly after they spotted the Chinese coast guard ships.

“Atin Ito contingent will continue with its course,” Hizon said

“Our boats are exercising evasive maneuvers while the Philippine coast guard continues to maintain its close distance to the convoy to thwart any further attempt from Chinese coast guard vessels,” Hizon said

The convoy was expected to reach the vicinity of the shoal Thursday morning, the organizers said, adding they would seek to avoid confrontations but were ready for any contingencies. The group plans to lay down symbolic territorial buoys and provide food packs and fuel to Filipino fishermen in the high seas near the shoal.

“Our mission is peaceful, based on international law and aimed at asserting our sovereign rights,” said Rafaela David, a lead organizer. “We will sail with determination, not provocation, to civilianize the region and safeguard our territorial integrity.”

In December, the group mounted an expedition to another disputed shoal but cut the trip short after being tailed by a Chinese ship.

China effectively seized the Scarborough Shoal, a triangle-shaped atoll with a vast fishing lagoon ringed by mostly submerged coral outcrops, by surrounding it with its coast guard ships after a tense 2012 standoff with Philippine government ships.

Angered by China’s action, the Philippine government brought the disputes to international arbitration in 2013 and largely won with a tribunal in The Hague ruling three years later that China’s expansive claims based on historical grounds in the busy seaway were invalid under the 1982 U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea.

The ruling declared the Scarborough Shoal a traditional fishing area for Chinese, Filipino and Vietnamese fishermen. In the past, fishermen have anchored in the shoal to avoid huge waves in the high seas in stormy weather.

China refused to participate in the arbitration, rejected the outcome and continues to defy it.

Two weeks ago, Chinese coast guard and suspected militia ships used water cannons on Philippine coast guard and fisheries ships patrolling the Scarborough Shoal, damaging both vessels.

The Philippines condemned the Chinese coast guard’s action on the shoal, which lies in the Southeast Asian nation’s internationally recognized exclusive economic zone. The Chinese coast guard said it took a “necessary measure” after the Philippine ships “violated China’s sovereignty."

Asked about the Atin Ito convoy on Wednesday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said “If the Philippine side abuses China’s goodwill and infringes on China’s territorial sovereignty and jurisdiction, China will safeguard its rights and take countermeasures in accordance with the law, and the responsibilities and consequences incurred will be borne entirely by the Philippine side.”

In addition to the Philippines and China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have also been involved in the territorial disputes.

Chinese coast guard ships had also ventured into waters close to Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia in the past, sparking tensions and protests, but the Southeast Asian nations with considerable economic ties with China have not been as aggressively critical against Beijing's increasingly assertive actions.

The Philippines has released videos of its territorial faceoffs with China and invited journalists to witness the hostilities in the high seas in a strategy to gain international support, sparking a word war with Beijing.

The increasing frequency of the skirmishes between the Philippines and China has led to minor collisions, injured Filipino navy personnel and damaged supply boats in recent months. It has sparked fears the territorial disputes could degenerate into an armed conflict between China and the United States, a longtime treaty ally of the Philippines.

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