Civilian Protest Convoy Reaches Chinese-Occupied Scarborough Shoal

A China Coast Guard cutter waits near Scarborough Shoal ahead of the convoy, May 15, 2024 (Philippine Coast Guard)
A China Coast Guard cutter waits near Scarborough Shoal ahead of the convoy, May 15, 2024 (Philippine Coast Guard)

Published May 16, 2024 4:01 PM by The Maritime Executive


The organizers of a civilian convoy to Chinese-occupied Scarborough Shoal have declared victory after delivering supplies to a small fleet of Philippine fishing boats outside the reef. The voyage was a protest of China's attempt to exclude Philippine fishing communities from accessing the reef, despite its location within the Philippine exclusive economic zone and the long history of Philippine subsistence fishing in the area.

"This stands as a testament to the ingenuity, resourcefulness and bravery of the Filipino spirit amidst formidable challenges," said Rafaela David, a local politician who co-organized the operation uinder the banner of the NGO Atin Ito ("This is Ours"). 

China dispatched a substantial force of maritime militia trawlers and China Coast Guard cutters to Scarborough in anticipation of the action. Ray Powell, a former U.S. Air Force operator who tracks Chinese movements in the South China Sea, said that no fewer than 43 Chinese vessels were located at or near Scarborough - including a rare appearance by a PLA Navy warship. 

An advance group of Philippine protesters left early, the day before the publicized 300-person event. The advance force made it through the Chinese cordon and made the deliveries. 

"Despite China's massive blockade, we managed to breach their illegal blockade, reaching Bajo de Masinloc to support our fishers with essential supplies. Mission accomplished!" said David in a statement.

However, this initial success was ultimately thwarted, organizer Emman Hizon later told GMA. China's forces closed in and chased off all the Philippine fishing boats that had received the supply deliveries from Atin Ito. 

"Our boat captains got a report that there are no more Filipino fishermen in [Scarborough] now because the Chinese Coast Guard, militia, and other marine vessels drove them away," Hizon said. 

With the fleet of aid recipients dispersed, Atin Ito's main convoy had no one to deliver to, so the protest flotilla will dispense the goods to recipients elsewhere in the area. 

China occupied Scarborough Shoal in 2012 and has exercised control over access ever since. The degree of Chinese restrictions on Philippine fishing access have varied over time, depending on the state of diplomatic relations, and are currently stringent: the China Coast Guard has repeatedly strung a floating line across the lagoon's sole entrance in order to keep Philippine vessels out. 

China claims virtually all of the South China Sea as its own, including areas located hundreds of miles from the Chinese mainland. Its assertions of maritime sovereignty overlap with the internationally-recognized exclusive economic zone of the Philippines. In 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled that China's sweeping claims were inconsistent with international law. Despite the ruling, China has gradually expanded its control over the area through strength, using economic leverage, paramilitary presence operations, and clear communication of the "consequences" of asserting Philippine sovereignty.