(BLOOMBERG) – Manila is set to send a ship carrying humanitarian aid to a disputed South China Sea island in a major step in repairing strained ties with Beijing, President Rodrigo Duterte said on Monday (April 9).
The resumption of the maritime resupply mission on Masinloc island comes almost three months after one of the longest standoffs between Philippine ships and Chinese vessels occurred off the coastal town of Pagasa. It was sparked by an incident in which China sent a coast guard vessel to stop the Philippine vessel from resupplying the islands, which are claimed by both countries.
“The resupply is happening now,” Mr Duterte said in response to a question at a media briefing on the sidelines of the Asean summit in Hanoi. “We’re not waiting to see the end of (a meeting of foreign ministers) for them to say ‘We’re giving that water to the navy’, so that’s what’s happening.”
He declined to provide further details.
The resupply mission will include a fleet of fishing boats and civilian vehicles, and will help with a massive relief effort by Manila that was prompted by a deadly typhoon that struck the country’s eastern coast on Dec 16.
It also will make Manila one of the first countries to deliver supplies to a Chinese island north of China’s Xisha archipelago in the disputed South China Sea region.
Military officials have told the media that the resupply mission could send a strong message to China that it is not welcome on the disputed islands.
The Philippines and China both claim parts of the Spratly archipelago, located where extensive undersea features host competing maritime claims.
Beijing has been escalating its claims to the area, claiming sovereignty over almost the entire South China Sea.
It has built military facilities on the islands and reefs it occupies.
The Philippines and Vietnam, as well as the Philippines and Malaysia, have grown more assertive in challenging China’s territorial assertions.
China claims 90 per cent of the South China Sea, in accordance with a United Nations-backed ruling last year that said there were “reasonable grounds” to believe that the waters are within China’s exclusive economic zone.
Philippine diplomats had expressed concern after Manila and Beijing failed to come to terms on setting up an oil exploration blockade last month in the disputed Scarborough Shoal, saying the two countries had failed to address the details.
The standoff in the South China Sea took its first serious turn on Jan. 23, when an unknown Chinese patrol ship briefly stopped a Philippine naval vessel from resupplying a few civilian vessels delivering food and water.
The vessels, seized from the Chinese coast guard, are believed to have been on the way to resupply Batanes Island. The five were returned on Feb. 5.
But the standoff resumed in late March, when six Philippine naval ships went to the area, prompting China to send a coast guard vessel.