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

A planned Christmas convoy of 40 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 Philippines National Security Council has advised against the convoy’s planned trip, warning it is a time of “heightened tensions”.

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

The National 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 water.

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

Beijing claims almost the entirety of the South China Sea, despite an international tribunal in The Hague finding this to have no legal basis.

It also maintains that its coast guard 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, 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 as 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.

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, Dela Torre said, adding that it expanded further to also include a delivery to the Philippine Coast Guard, and troops at BRP Sierra Madre. It had received a good response from NGOs, church leaders, as well as some business figures who have promised bulk donations. People have been asked to give items such a noodles, tinned foods, long sleeve shirts, toiletries and torches.

Dela Torre said he had spoken to a fisherfolk leader in Zambales, where communities have seen their catch decrease 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 is hoped the campaign will 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.

Malaya of the National Security Council has offered to deliver Christmas donations during the routine resupply missions by the Philippine Coast Guard, adding: “Our troops in Ayungin Shoal are well supplied by the Philippine Navy-AFP supported by the Philippine Coast Guard through the regular RORE [rotation and resupply] missions. There is, therefore, no need for a civilian Christmas convoy mission at this time.”

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