MANILA, May 15 — Civilians on board Philippine fishing boats sailed today towards a China-controlled reef off the Southeast Asian country to distribute provisions to Filipino fishermen and assert their rights to the disputed waterway.

The trip to the waters around Scarborough Shoal comes two weeks after China Coast Guard vessels fired water cannon at two Philippine government boats in the same area, in the latest maritime incident between the countries.

A Philippine Coast Guard boat will escort the civilian convoy, which includes around 100 people on four commercial fishing vessels and a number of smaller outriggers, organisers said Wednesday as the convoy left a northern Philippine port.

“Our mission is peaceful, based on international law and aimed at asserting our sovereign rights,” Rafaela David of Atin Ito said in a statement on the eve of the trip to give food and fuel to fishermen.

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“We will sail with determination, not provocation, to civilianise the region and safeguard our territorial integrity.”

David said the group was undeterred by reports of a “heavy presence” of Chinese vessels near the shoal and would go ahead with plans to also drop a dozen buoys marked “WPS is ours”.

WPS is the acronym for the West Philippine Sea, Manila’s name for the South China Sea waters immediately west of the Philippines.

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Scarborough Shoal has been a potential flashpoint since China seized it from the Philippines in 2012.

The reef is about 240 kilometres west of the Philippines’ main island of Luzon and nearly 900 kilometres from Hainan, the nearest major Chinese land mass.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, brushing off rival claims by the Philippines and other countries, and ignoring an international ruling that its assertion has no legal basis.

To press its claims, Beijing deploys coast guard and other boats to patrol the waterway and has turned several reefs into artificial islands that it has militarised.

Tensions over the disputed waters and reefs have intensified in the past 18 months as Manila pushes back against China’s growing assertiveness.

This is the second civilian convoy organised by the Atin Ito group. A previous trip to the South China Sea in December was aborted due to shadowing by Chinese vessels. — Reuters