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100-Boat Filipino Civilian Convoy Sails Toward Disputed Shoal in South China Sea | TIME

MANILA, Philippines — A flotilla of about 100 mostly small fishing boats led by Filipino activists sailed Wednesday to a disputed shoal in the South China Sea, where Beijing’s coast guard and suspected militia ships have used powerful water cannons to ward off what they regard as intruders.

The Philippine coast guard and navy deployed one patrol ship each to keep watch from a distance on the activists and fishermen, who set off on wooden boats with bamboo outriggers to assert Manila’s sovereignty over the Scarborough Shoal. Dozens of journalists joined the three-day voyage.

Activists and volunteers, including a Roman Catholic priest, belonging to a nongovernment coalition called Atin Ito—Tagalog for This is Ours—planned to float small territorial buoys and distribute food packs and fuel to Filipino fishermen near the shoal, organizers said, adding they were prepared for contingencies.

“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, David’s group with boatloads of fishermen also tried to sail to another disputed shoal but cut short the trip 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.

Read More: China Is Testing How Hard It Can Push in the South China Sea Before Someone Pushes Back

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