Duterte to military: Occupy PH islands in South China Sea

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – To assert sovereign rights over Philippine territories in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), President Rodrigo Duterte said he has ordered the military to occupy islands there.

"I have ordered the Armed Forces to occupy all the so many islands, I think 9 or 10. Lagyan ng structures (Build structures) and the Philippine flag," said Duterte on Thursday, April 6, a move that could provoke rival claimants including Beijing. 

The President made the statement during a press briefing in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, the province on the frontlines of the sea row with China. He was there to visit soldiers in Camp Artemio Ricarte. Before the briefing, he had given a speech in front of them.

Duterte pointed out the need to "maintain jurisdiction" over the West Philippine Sea. In particular, he wants to "fortify" disputed Pag-asa by building bunkers and other structures there.

"Mukhang agawan kasi ito ng isla eh and what's ours now, at least kunin na natin and make a strong point there that it's ours," said Duterte.

(This looks like island-grabbing so what's ours now, at least let's get them and make a strong point there that it's ours.)

Changing tune

Duterte's insistence on military presence in Philippine territories in the South China Sea is a departure from his passive approach to it upon assuming the presidency.

It comes amid his bid to strike warmer ties with China which is claiming virtually the entire sea.

In September 2016, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr had in fact said that the President wanted to "demilitarize" the area to improve the chances of a peaceful settlement of the maritime dispute.

Pag-asa Island, also being claimed by China, is the 2nd biggest naturally occurring island in the South China Sea and the only one with civilian presence. It is the seat of power of the Kalayaan Group of Islands (Spratlys) that is attached to the province of Palawan.

More facilities

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana clarified that Filipino troops already occupy 9 islands in the Spratlys including Pag-asa.

"We have [Marine] troops in everyone of them," Lorenzana said in a statement Thursday.

"The President wants facilities built such as: barracks for the men, water (desalination) and sewage disposal systems, power generators (conventional and renewable), light houses, and shelters for fishermen," Lorenzana explained.

On Thursday, Esperon bared government plans to repair the runway in Pag-asa Island. The President said he fully supports this as it would help "fortify" the island.

"The development there has my full support, gagastos ako sa fortification diyan (I will spend for the fortification there)," he said.

Trip to Pag-asa

Duterte is so eager to assert the country's rights on Pag-asa Island that, come Independence Day in June, he plans to go there himself to plant the Philippine flag.

"Coming Independence Day natin (This coming Independence Day), I might, I may go to Pag-asa Island to raise the flag there," he said.

The last time Duterte spoke of raising a flag on disputed territory, he later on admitted he was just joking.

He had promised, as a presidential candidate, to jetski to Scarborough Shoal (Panatag Shoal) to plant the Philippine flag. When he became President, he ridiculed media for believing his statement. – Rappler.com

Pia Ranada

Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at pia.ranada@rappler.com.

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