Last month, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) installed five navigational aids in disputed waters in the Spratly group of islands to assert its sovereignty claim in the South China Sea.

The five yellow-colored, 30-foot buoys were strategically placed in an area called “dangerous ground” in the southeast part of South China Sea, where most of the low islands, cays, sunken reefs, shoals, and reefs were occupied by the Philippines.

Four of the Spanish-made buoys with the country’s flags were placed near Philippine-occupied features: the Flat Island (Patag), Irving Reef (Balagtas), Loaita Island (Kota), and Lankiam Cay (Panata).

The fifth buoy was installed near Whitsun reef (Julian Felipe) in the Union Banks, where some 200 Chinese militia vessels were seen anchored in March 2021.

Huge tankers, bulk carriers and cargo shipping going to and from Hong Kong and Singapore have been avoiding the uncharted “dangerous ground,” passing east and west of the area to avoid running aground.

Commodore Jay Tarriela, the coast guard adviser for maritime security, said the installation of the navigational aids was an exercise of the country’s sovereign rights, insisting the Philippines has jurisdiction over the area. These areas are within the country’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

“This move highlights the Philippines’ unwavering resolve to protect its maritime borders and resources and contribute to the safety of maritime trade,” Tarriela said in a Twitter post.

This is not the first time the Philippines installed buoys in the disputed waters.

Last year, four buoys were also placed at Thitu Island (Pagasa), Nanshan Island (Lawak), West York Island (Likas), and Northeast Cay (Parola).

All four features have been occupied by the Philippines since the 1970s. Thitu and West York islands are the two largest Philippine-held territories in the South China Sea.

The coast guard said it planned to install more buoys in the near future to help civilian maritime shipping navigate the dangerous and shallow waters in the Spratlys.

China and Vietnam, which claim almost the entire South China Sea, protested the installation of the buoys.

Beijing went further by installing its own buoys in three areas in the South China Sea. Two were placed near the Philippine buoys in Whitsun Reef (Julian Felipe) and Irving Reef (Balagtas) and the third was installed at Gaven Reef (Burgos), a Chinese-occupied feature.

Before the Philippines and China went on a buoy war, the two countries have been playing a dangerous cat-and-mouse game in the Spratlys.

In the 1990s, Philippine troops blew up concrete markers put up by the Chinese on uninhabited features to lay claim on territories.

The markers had Chinese inscriptions naming the particular cay, reef, shoal, and island. Philippine troops on patrol removed these markers, destroying and blowing them into pieces.

The blasts sent shock waves to Hawaii as senior US military officials became worried the Philippine actions could lead to an escalation that could become a conflict.

At that time, Washington tried to distance itself from a potential conflict in the South China Sea despite the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.

The US was courting Chinese support against the Soviet Union before the latter disintegrated. The US does not consider China as a threat.

China has limited presence in the disputed waters. It started occupying features in the Spratlys when it dislodged the Vietnamese on Fiery Cross reef after a brief naval battle, sinking a Vietnamese navy ship.

The Philippines also has limited capabilities. Its old navy ships, mostly World War II vintage destroyer escorts and transport ships, cannot venture into the rough and dangerous Spratly waters during the monsoon season.

After China seized control of Mischief Reef (Panganiban), building a makeshift shelter in 1995, the Philippines halted its operations to blow up Chinese markers.

Mischief Reef has been transformed into a man-made island with a 3-kilometer runway and secured ports for China’s People’s Liberation Army-Navy, coast guard, and militia vessels.

After Mischief, the Philippines deliberately ran aground BRP Sierra Madre on Second Thomas Shoal (Ayungin) to stop China from moving eastward to Sabina Shoal and Half Moon Shoal.

The Chinese markers have been replaced by militia vessels which control waters around uninhabited features, expanding China’s claims on the areas.

A 2002 Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea signed by China and Asean states in Phnom Penh has been preventing China from further occupying territories in the Spratlys but its militia vessels have been providing control over large areas in the disputed waters.

The installation of buoys in the Spratlys is a clever move by the Philippines to assert its sovereignty claim in the South China Sea. It is a non-military action and peaceful means to push the country’s territorial agenda.

It would be counterproductive for China to remove these buoys as it serves as navigational aids to mariners in the Spratlys, particularly in the uncharted “dangerous ground” in the area.

What China and other claimant states can do is put up their own buoys in the disputed waters and build lighthouses on their occupied features.

In the near future, the Spratlys will be littered with buoys, lighthouses, and other navigational aids that will eventually help international shipping as well as naval and maritime law enforcement vessels frequenting the disputed waters.

The buoy war is an escalation, but a more peaceful and non-military action to assert sovereignty claims in the South China Sea.

More non-military competition and perhaps, cooperation are needed to calm down nerves which have risen in recent months because of China’s harassment and coercive activities in the area.

In the near future, China and Asean states should consider a fishing agreement as well as an environmental cooperation deal to ease tension in the region.