THE BRP SIERRA MADRE, a marooned transport ship which Philippine Marines live in as a military outpost, is pictured in the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, part of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. — REUTERS

By Kyle Aristophere T. Atienza, Reporter

LOCAL SECURITY officials on Tuesday said they would protect a civilian-led convoy to Philippine-occupied features in the South China Sea next month, days after rejecting the plan amid worsening tensions with China.

In a statement, the National Security Council (NSC) said it would allow the Christmas convoy of about 40 civilian vessels to pass through Second Thomas Shoal, which has been a major source of tensions with China in recent months.

A team led by Senator Risa Hontiveros-Baraquel’s Akbayan Party will go to various Philippine-occupied features in the South China Sea on Dec. 10 before heading to Pag-Asa Island to “bring Christmas cheer” to fisherfolk and soldiers stationed there,” council Assistant Director-General Jonathan E. Malaya said.

The group originally planned to hold a convoy to BRP Sierra Madre, a World War II-era vessel that the Philippines deliberately grounded at Second Thomas, locally called Ayungin, in 1999 to serve as an outpost for Filipino troops.

The NSC had opposed the plan, saying it could escalate tensions with China.

“Both parties agreed that a convoy to BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal would not be advisable at this time since the safety of the civilian convoy is of paramount consideration,” Mr. Malaya said.

He said Christmas gifts and donated supplies for troops at BRP Sierra Madre would instead be delivered by Philippine military troops and Coast Guard personnel during their regular rotation and resupply missions.

The group earlier said civilian voyages within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea should be normalized. “For each act of Chinese aggression, the Philippines must respond with more supply missions,” it said.

China has been blocking Philippine resupply missions to BRP Sierra Madre. Second Thomas Shoal is about 200 kilometers from the Philippine island of Palawan and more than 1,000 kilometers from China’s nearest major landmass, Hainan Island.

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) is ready to help the civilian team during the convoy, Mr. Malaya told reporters on the sidelines of a security forum in Taguig City.

The team will also coordinate with the Western Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

He said they have yet to decide how many vessels will accompany the convoy. “What is paramount for us is their safety and security. The final number will depend on discussions between the coast guard, Western Command and the Atin ‘To Coalition.”

Don Mclain Gill, who teaches foreign relations at De La Salle University in Manila, hailed the security sector for its “careful and balanced deliberations.”

“China can go to any extent to cement its expansive interests in the West Philippine Sea, even if it may come at the expense of the safety of our civilians. Hence, caution remains a priority,” he said in a Facebook Messenger chat, referring to areas of the South China Sea within the country’s exclusive economic zone.