A patriotic organization opposed to Chinese imperialism in the Philippines has made a voyage to the contested Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, where China has begun constructing numerous military facilities in violation of international law.
The group of about 50 protesters, mostly students, is known as the Kalayaan Atin Ito (KAI) Movement and landed on Pagasa Island on Saturday. Pagasa is one of the islands that make up the Spratly Archipelago, where China has begun constructing artificial islands, lighthouses, and up to four landing strips. The island’s mayor, Eugenio Bito-onon, welcomed the group on its “freedom voyage.”
The group posted a photo from Pagasa on Facebook, with a message urging the Filipino government to more aggressively challenge China’s claims in the South China Sea. “We encourage the highest leadership of the country to inform the people correctly without sugar coating the truth about Chinese invasion of our Exclusive Economic Zone,” the group said in a statement. “How can the people unite and pick up the cudgels and peacefully and legally fight along side of you if you hide the truth from us?”
China is claiming most of the South China Sea, a highly-trafficked international maritime corridor in which the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Taiwan, and Malaysia all have exclusive territorial claims. The Philippines has filed a case at the International Court of Arbitration at The Hague, and the court has ruled that it has jurisdiction to determine who owns the islands and resources in the area. Indonesia, which does not make any claims in the disputed regions of the sea but does control islands in the South China Sea, has expressed a desire to bring the case to the court against China, as well.
The Philippine Star reports that the group reached Pagasa without harassment from Chinese vessels, though they did encounter a Philippine Coast Guard vessel. The Filipino government issued a statement saying they would give the group any military support necessary if they encountered a challenge at sea, though the government has reacted with caution to the group. A spokesman for President Benigno Aquino said of the group that, while the federal government “recognizes the patriotism of these youth,” he encourages them to find “alternative ways” to protest.
The Chinese government, meanwhile, has reacted with its standard outrage towards anyone challenging its claims in the region. “We once again urge the Philippines to withdraw all its personnel and facilities from the islands that it is illegally occupying, refrain from actions that are detrimental to regional peace and stability and not conducive to Sino-Philippines relations,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in a statement.
“China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands, including the Zhongye Dao Island,” he added, using the Chinese names for both the Spratly Islands and Pagasa.
The group had already completed a similar mission to the island in late November. “We are gradually losing our maritime domain to China’s aggression. If we are not doing this now, then when?” the group asked then, encouraging supporters to join them on their voyage. They reached the island on that occasion without incident, as well.