West Philippine Sea

46 Chinese ships in vicinity as civilian convoy tries to reach Panatag Shoal  

Bea Cupin

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46 Chinese ships in vicinity as civilian convoy tries to reach Panatag Shoal  

Atin Ito

(1st UPDATE) A smaller team of 10 brings supplies to fisherfolk some 20 to 30 nautical miles away from the shoal

MANILA, Philippines – The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) monitored at least 46 Chinese vessels in the “vicinity area” of Panatag Shoal or Bajo de Masinloc on Thursday, May 16, as a civilian mission aboard wooden fishing vessels tried to sail closer to the shoal. 

According a situation report from the PCG that was shared to the media, the 46 are made up of eight China Coast Guard (CCG) ships and 38 “alleged” Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM) vessels. One CCG ship, with bow number 4203, was still following the convoy, according to the PCG, which deployed its BRP Bagacay to help secure the civilian coalition. 

As of 9 am, the Bagacay and the four fishing vessels of the Atin Ito coalition was around 58 nautical miles away from Panatag Shoal. The shoal, deemed the common fishing ground for Filipino, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Taiwanese fisherfolk, is located just over 120 nautical miles from mainland Zambales. 

Atin Ito earlier announced that an “advance team” of 10 people from Akbayan Party, Pambansang Katipunan ng mga Samahan sa Kanayunan (PKSK), and the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM) had made it some “25-30 nautical miles of the general vicinity Bajo de Masinloc on May 15.”

The smaller team was able to distribute supplies, including 1,000 liters of diesel and 200 food packs, to fisherfolk in the area. 

Just before noon on Thursday, the main convoy concluded with a thanksgiving prayer presided over by Fr. Robert Reyes and started making their way to the Subic fish port. The convoy, along with the BRP Bacagay, was situated halfway between Zambales and Panatag Shoal.

They are expected to arrive in Subic by midnight Friday, May 17.

Bajo de Masinloc, also known as Panatag or Scarborough Shoal, is a high-tide elevation that’s a flashpoint for tensions between the Philippines and China. While it’s located well within the Philippines’ 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone, it’s been in the control of China since 2012. China asserts that the shoal is theirs, even if no country can claim sovereignty over it. 

The Atin Ito coalition is composed of civilian groups. In December 2024, they tried a civilian resupply mission to Philippine outposts close to Ayungin Shoal, a feature in the West Philippine Sea south of Panatag Shoal. That mission turned back, as China Coast Guard ships loomed in its path. A smaller vessel, however, made it to Lawak Island. 

The 46-vessel deployment from China is the largest Philippine officials and observers of the West Philippine Sea have tracked ever. Typically, China deploys between six or up to eight vessels in the immediate vicinity of the shoal. 

PCG spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea Commodore Jay Tarriela has said the extraordinary deployment shows that China is “afraid on their own stories” and believes its own claim that Atin Ito was organized by the Philippine government.

In late April 2024, two government ships on a humanitarian mission to bring supplies to fisherfolk in Panatag were met with the strong water cannons of the China Coast Guard. – Rappler.com

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Bea Cupin

Bea is a senior multimedia reporter who covers national politics. She's been a journalist since 2011 and has written about Congress, the national police, and the Liberal Party for Rappler.