Christmas convoy to cheer up Filipino troops on disputed shoal ‘ill advised’

<span>Photograph: Erik de Castro/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Erik de Castro/Reuters

A planned Christmas convoy of dozens of boats aiming to bring the festive spirit to Filipino troops on a disputed shoal has been described as “ill advised” by the country’s security officials, who warned of heightened tensions with Beijing in the South China Sea.

The national security council in the Philippines has advised against the proposed trip, warning it is a time of “heightened tensions”.

About 40 boats, which would be decorated with nativity figures and traditional parol lanterns, have volunteered to take part in the mission intended to take donations to fishers in the South China Sea as well as coastguards and troops stationed at Second Thomas Shoal, where a derelict warship serves as an unlikely military outpost.

The security council said that while it supported the intention “to bring holiday cheer” to frontliners, undertaking such a mission to Second Thomas Shoal would be ill advised. It did, however, suggest the Christmas convoy could visit other locations in the South China Sea, where Philippine troops and civilians also “deserve Christmas goodies and donations from the public”.

The Philippines deliberately grounded BRP Sierra Madre at Second Thomas Shoal, a submerged reef in the Spratly Islands, in 1999 to guard against expansion by China. It has become a flashpoint in the disputed waters.

Beijing has demanded the warship’s removal, and over recent months has repeatedly tried to block Philippine boats from delivering supplies to troops onboard – firing water cannon, targeting vessels with a military-grade laser and performing what Manila has condemned as dangerous manoeuvres.

Beijing lays claim to almost the entirety of the South China Sea, despite an international tribunal in The Hague finding they have no legal basis to do so.

China also maintains that its coastguard acts in accordance with the law, and has accused the Philippines of provoking political drama, and Manila’s treaty ally, the US, of interfering.

On Tuesday, the Philippine president, Ferdinand Marcos JR, said joint maritime and air patrols in the South China Sea had been launched by the Philippines and the US military, calling it a “significant initiative”.

Edicio Dela Torre, convenor of the Atin Ito campaign, which is organising the Christmas fundraiser, said the mission would go ahead, but there would be negotiations to decide what form it should take. “We want something peaceful, something fun, we are not going [in order] to confront,” he said.

Political tensions are not the only hurdle for the Christmas convoy. The weather, which is usually unfavourable during December, could also pose a significant logistical challenge.

Dela Torre said the campaign had begun with the idea of sending Christmas gifts to fishing communities that have been badly affected by the dispute in the South China Sea but had since expanded further to include a delivery to the Philippine coastguard and troops at BRP Sierra Madre. It had received a good response from NGOs, church leaders and some business figures who have promised bulk donations. People have been asked to give items such a noodles, tinned foods, long-sleeved shirts, toiletries and torches.

Dela Torre said he had spoken to a fishers leader in Zambales, where the catch of local communities had decreased rapidly. They would once catch their quota in just two days, he said. “Now, even over a week, they still can’t get enough catch. Because it’s not just the harassment or the overfishing by Chinese vessels. It’s the fact that they destroyed the corals.”

The Philippines has accused China of destroying coral reefs within its exclusive economic zone – something Beijing has denied.

Dela Torre said it was hoped the campaign would last beyond Christmas and provide longer-term support to fishing communities, including through projects to protect mangroves, and create community fish landing centres, with cold storage and other facilities.

He also hopes to invest in education about issues relating to the South China Sea.

Jonathan Malaya of the national security council offered to deliver any Christmas donations via the routine resupply missions by the Philippine coastguard, adding: “Our troops in [Second Thomas] Shoal are well supplied by the Philippine Navy-AFP supported by the Philippine coastguard through the regular RORE [rotation and resupply] missions. There is, therefore, no need for a civilian Christmas convoy mission at this time.”