• Philippine authorities said the Chinese coast guard vessels did not challenge them
  • Officials said the buoys hinted that the vicinity waters are special protected zones 
  • China stakes claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands

Challenging China's assertiveness in the South China Sea, the Philippines has installed five navigational buoys carrying its flag on four islands under the Spratlys.

The buoys were planted by the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) from May 10 to May 17 near Nanshan Island (Lawak), West York Island (Likas), Northeast Cay Island (Parola) and Thitu Island (Pag-asa), reported Inquirer.

These islands are currently administered by the Philippines and fall under the eastern parts of the South China Sea, inside Manila's exclusive economic zone. However, China stakes claim to 90 percent of the South China Sea, including the Spratlys, based on the U-shaped nine-dash line etched on the map in the 1940s.

"We are claiming what is ours. That’s the message that goes with it, the strong message that what is ours will be ours," Adm. Artemio Abu, PCG commandant, told the Inquirer on Tuesday.

He added that the PCG deployed five ships—two from Manila and three from Palawan—to install the five buoys for navigational safety. "It’s the first time that there [were] five PCG ships in the West Philippine Sea simultaneously," he added.

According to a statement by the PCG, the buoys also "communicate that the said vicinity waters are considered special protected zones where mining and oil exploration are prohibited to preserve their rich natural resources."

Interestingly, the Chinese Coast Guard vessels, that were present in the vicinity, opted not to challenge the Philippine vessels. The Chinese Coast Guard is a dominating presence not only in the West Philippine Sea but also in the rest of the South China Sea.

The PCG commandant also visited the Thitu island Saturday, accompanied by top officials. He said he checked on the PCG personnel deployed to the island and distributed relief supplies to residents. The Thitu is the largest of the nine features occupied by the Philippines in the Spratlys and the only one with civilian inhabitants.

"During my visit to Thitu Island, I saw five PCG ships anchored in the vicinity with several Filipino fishing "bancas" (boats). Several Vietnamese fishing boats, Chinese fishing vessels, and China Coast Guard vessels were not so far from their position, specifically at the vicinity waters off Subi Reef," he told Philstar Global.

"According to the Coast Guard Fleet, the West Philippine Sea is peaceful and the ships of Vietnam and China have shown respect for our mission," he added.

A Philippine coast guard ship sails past a Chinese coast guard ship near Scarborough shoal in the South China Sea in May 2019
A file picture of a Philippine coast guard ship sailing past a Chinese coast guard ship near Scarborough shoal in the South China Sea AFP / TED ALJIBE