Palawan, Philippines — Philippine Navy recently discovered an extensive steel marker bearing Chinese engravings and hundreds of yellow buoys in the waters near the Reed Bank, an area of the South China Sea where Manila has long explored for oil and gas, Philippine naval sources said.
One source, a sailor, told Reuters he was on a fishing boat being used by the navy that discovered the rubber buoys and the floating steel marker at the end of May. The buoys stretched “as far as the eye could see”, the sailor said.
He said there was no evidence Chinese ships had placed them near the Reed Bank, which is also claimed by Beijing.
But efforts to remove the buoys were thwarted by the sudden appearance of a Chinese naval patrol vessel, prompting the Philippine boat to flee, the sailor said in an interview in Puerto Princesa, capital of Palawan province, the Philippine military’s jumping off point to the disputed South China Sea.
“Chinese patrol ship emerged on the horizon as our boys are trying to cut and remove the buoys. It was unclear what the Chinese inscriptions on the steel marker. They immediately left when a Chinese patrol getting closer.” sailor said.
Two senior Philippine naval officials confirmed the discovery. “The buoys were still there when our navy checked in the middle of June, although the steel marker was gone. No attempt was made to remove the buoys.” He said.
“It was the first time in recent years that such markers had been found near the Reed Bank.” Philippine military officials said.
The three sources declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak to the media.
The Spratly islands, where China is flexing its naval muscles as it builds seven man-made islands on top of coral reefs, lie to the southwest of Reed Bank, further away from the Philippines.
Asked to comment on the buoys, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said “we do not understand what you are talking about”, while adding that China had “indisputable sovereignty” over the Spratly islands and its nearby waters.
“China’s position on this is clear and consistent,” it said.
The Chinese Defense Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Marine Colonel Edgard Arevalo, the Philippine navy spokesman in Manila, said he had not seen any report on the discovery.
China claims most of the South China Sea, through which $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. The Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims.