Is the Philippines’ Atin Ito really a civic group?

The China Coast Guard takes photos of a Philippine vessel illegally intruding into waters adjacent to China’s Huangyan Dao, February 15, 2024. /VCG

The China Coast Guard takes photos of a Philippine vessel illegally intruding into waters adjacent to China’s Huangyan Dao, February 15, 2024. /VCG

A Philippine non-governmental organization (NGO) called Atin Ito, or “This is ours,” is convening a group of fishermen in the waters around China’s Huangyan Dao in mid May to begin a fresh round of provocation in the South China Sea, Philippine media reported.

The self-proclaimed “group of civilian volunteers” is politically affiliated and a government-led effort by the Philippines and the U.S., according to experts and media reports.

“It’s not the first time that the organization conducted the so-called peaceful activities in the South China Sea,” Ding Duo, deputy director of the Institute of Maritime Law and Policy at the China Institute for South China Sea Studies, told CGTN.

Ding said Atin Ito has a certain political background. The actual leader of the organization, Rafaela David, is also the chairman of the Akbayan Party in the Philippines. Although this political party is relatively small in the Philippine political arena, it has been using various political issues in the Philippines to increase its presence and influence in recent years. 

The militaries of the Philippines and the U.S. also do not hide their relations with the organization. The Philippine Star reported that Commodore Roy Vincent Trinidad, a Philippine navy spokesman, voiced support on May 2 for Atin Ito’s upcoming “civilian supply mission” to Huangyan Dao. “And so long as they abide by all the guidelines given by the government, we support all activities, civic society,” he said. 

Citing an article titled “Lighting Up The Gray Zone” by U.S. Air Force Captain Benjamin Goirigolzarri published on the U.S. Naval Institute’s website, the Asian Century Journal report said that the U.S. established a new strategy in the South China Sea called Project Myoushu, which is a derivative of the U.S. Naval Institute’s Maritime Counterinsurgency (COIN) Project tailored specifically to counter China’s “dominance” in the South China Sea.

The project previously hyped the China Coast Guard’s law enforcement operations in the South China Sea, attempted to incite public opinion and push for governments of countries around the South China Sea to become hard on China, and damaged the peace China and other countries in the region have created. The Asian Century Journal report deduced that the Atin Ito Coalition is indeed a joint U.S.-Philippines effort.

Why Huangyan Dao is not a Philippine territory

The territory of the Philippines is defined by a series of international treaties, including the 1898 Treaty of Peace between the United States of America and the Kingdom of Spain, the 1900 Treaty between the United States of America and the Kingdom of Spain for Cession of Outlying Islands of the Philippines, and the 1930 Convention between His Majesty in Respect of the United Kingdom and the President of the United States regarding the Boundary between the State of North Borneo and the Philippine Archipelago. 

Huangyan Dao, an island in the South China Sea, is beyond the limits of Philippine territory based on the above treaties.

It was also marked outside the Philippines’ territorial limits in the official Philippine maps published in 1981 and 1984. The map published in 2006 showed no changes.