China has sent dozens of coast guard and maritime militia vessels toward a disputed atoll in the South China Sea, a large show of force aimed at blocking a civilian protest flotilla from the Philippines, as tensions between the countries have flared.

The Filipino group organizing the flotilla of about 100 small fishing boats, led by five slightly bigger ones, said it wanted to assert the Philippines’ claims to Scarborough Shoal, an atoll controlled by Beijing that is closer to Manila.

But even before the motley Philippine fleet set out on Wednesday morning, China deployed a formidable contingent of much bigger government-run ships to the area, an intimidating escalation of its frequent assertions of control over vast expanses of sea far from its mainland.

“What we’re seeing this time, I would say, is definitely of another order,” said Ray Powell, the director of SeaLight, a group that monitors the South China Sea. “I think that the China Coast Guard is concerned that they’re going to try to sort of get too close, and so they’re sending an overwhelming force.”

Standoffs and close brushes between Filipino coast guard or civilian vessels and China’s larger coast guard and militia ships — which have used powerful water cannons to drive Philippine vessels away — have become more frequent in the past two years. This time, the size of the Chinese presence and the large number of civilian Filipino boats could make any encounter near the shoal more risky, Mr. Powell said.

“If China decides that they want to send the message that says, ‘We’ve had enough of this,’ then the scary thing you would not want to see is one of these small Filipino fishing boats hit by a water cannon, because that would not end well,” he said.

source

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