“Our forefathers used to meet in [the] Spratlys and get drunk,” Art Valdez, the head of a Philippine team planning to sail from Manila to Dezhou, China, in March 2018, told me. He was doing his best to shrug off worries that he and his team could be accosted by Chinese naval forces if they sailed too close to the Spratly Islands, a maritime feature in the South China Sea that is claimed by both Manila and Beijing.
This isn’t the first time that Valdez has tried to make this journey, or the first time that concerns about China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea have been raised. In 2010, Valdez and 30 others planned a similar journey—this one involving steering their three balangay, or traditional wooden boats, on a shortcut near the Spratlys. The Philippine embassy, Valdez says, stopped them from completing their trip due to fears that they would be blocked by the Chinese.
The embassy was probably right to call off the voyage. Major tensions between the two countries would soon erupt. In 2011, Chinese marine surveillance vessels shadowed the M/V Veritas Voyager—a ship contracted by the Filipino company Forum Energy to conduct oil and gas survey explorations in Reed Bank, east of the Spratlys. In 2012, heating tensions came to a full boil in a standoff near Scarborough Shoal, another area claimed by both China and the Philippines. The dispute sparked a landmark international legal case between the two countries, which was decided in the Philippines’ favor in July 2016.
Valdez, a former government official, knew all about the blocking of vessels, the stopping of fishing and other activities in the disputed maritime lane, and the fragile state of Chinese-Philippine relations. But for him and his team, the strife does not reflect the two nations’ happy past. And that is why, after an eight-year hiatus, the team will again set off for China in a couple of months.
The Filipino adventurers will ride the balangay to
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