At least 40 boats will join a civilian Christmas convoy to Philippine-occupied features in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) starting Dec. 9, Akbayan party president Rafaela David said Wednesday.
This developed as Stratbase ADR Institute president Victor Andres “Dindo” Manhit said the country should continue working and engaging with like-minded states in addressing its concerns in the West Philippine Sea in the coming year.
Speaking to TeleRadyo Serbisyo, David said the 40 vessels will include one mother vessel that can accommodate up to 100 people.
The convoy is set to visit several Philippine-occupied features, including Patag Island and Lawak Island in the Spratlys, as well as in the vicinity of Ayungin Shoal.
“What will happen is we will still go to the vicinity of Ayungin Shoal and hopefully we will get to see (the ship) as near as possible, it depends what is practical and what is safe,” David said, referring to the grounded BRP Sierra Madre.
“We will not come close if it won’t be safe or practicable,” she said in a TeleRadyo Serbisyo interview.
The Christmas convoy will have its sendoff on Dec. 9 but will officially start its voyage on Dec. 10. David said the mission is expected to last about three days, with Dec. 12 as the tentative date of return.
She said the convoy is coordinating with the Philippine Coast Guard and other security agencies on the best route to ensure the safety of the civilian mission, and at the same time ensure that Christmas gifts for frontlines and fisherfolk will be delivered.
Commodore Jay Tarriela, PCG spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea, earlier said the Christmas convoy initially planned to give gifts to troops stationed at BRP Sierra Madre, which has been grounded at the Ayungin Shoal to assert Manila’s claim to sovereignty in the area.
He noted the Philippines is occupying nine maritime features in the West Philippine Sea.
“Go to the other 8, not just Ayungin Shoal because we know even the Philippine Coast Guard and the Armed Forces of the Philippines, whenever we do the resupply missions, really feel the aggressive behavior of China (maritime militia) whenever we conduct the resupply,” he told TeleRadyo Serbisyo.
Tarriela noted the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea was able to convince ATIN ITO coalition leaders not to push through with the visit to the Sierra Madre.
“We can go to other maritime features but not Ayungin Shoal because as I said, the danger is so high in this area,” he said, adding that the Christmas convoy could turn over the Christmas gifts to the Philippine Coast Guard, which would then deliver the goods to the BRP Sierra Madre.
In a forum titled Fostering Cooperation in the Indo-Pacific Towards 2024 on Tuesday, Manhit said the Philippines has gained this year continued support from like-minded states for its arbitral victory and vowed to stand with the country in defending the rules-based international order.
“In addition to the enormous support of Filipinos in the WPS issue, the international community is an advocate of promoting peace and stability in the region… Our united front allows us to remain firm against aggressive and coercive acts disrupting our peace,” Manhit said.
“As we close 2023, the Philippines should be in a better position to confront the risks in the WPS by building on its capabilities and ironing out interoperability with like-minded states. In the same manner, it should continue to involve the public and expose the coercive tactics employed by aggressive states,” he said.
Manhit said the country became a focal point of geopolitical tensions in the Indo-Pacific this year, as China continued to conduct “gray zone” operations in key areas of the WPS.
Security experts define gray zone operations as “tactics using non-military means – below the threshold of armed conflict – to achieve political objectives.”
These include the intimidation of civilian Filipino fishing vessels, conducting a series of water cannon incidents, damaging coral reefs, and spreading disinformation among others.
Amid Beijing’s aggressive and coercive actions, Manhit believes that Manila’s strategy of raising awareness on these issues proved effective.
“By allowing the public sharing of once-sensitive information, the government has increased Filipino awareness of the situation in the WPS. Our annual public opinion surveys indicate that Filipinos are
supportive of our arbitral victory,” he said. With Vince Lopez