PUERTO PRINCESA CITY, Philippines (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN News Desk) - President Duterte on Thursday said he had ordered troops to deploy to and fortify unoccupied South China Sea islands and reefs claimed by the Philippines, a move that could provoke rival claimants, including China.
Duterte also announced that he may visit Pagasa Island, internationally known as Thitu Island, and raise the Philippine flag there on Independence Day, June 12.
“It looks like everybody is making a grab for the islands there, so we better live on those that are still vacant,” Mr. Duterte told reporters during a visit to the headquarters of the Western Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan province, near the disputed Spratly archipelago.
China asserts sovereignty over almost all of the resource-rich South China Sea despite rival claims from the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan, and has rapidly built reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military planes.
Duterte has previously sought to improve the Philippines’ relations with China by adopting a nonconfrontational approach to their competing claims.
He has deferred assertion of an international tribunal’s ruling in favor of the Philippines in a challenge to China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea and made overtures to Beijing that have led to improvement in relations between the two countries.
But he appeared to alter his tone with his announcement on Thursday, saying it was time to “erect structures there and raise the Philippine flag.”He made clear, however, that he was not diverting from his administration’s stance of making “friends with everybody,” including China.
He said the Philippines only sought to make sure it had a strong presence on the islands it occupied.
“We try to be friends with everybody, but we have to maintain our jurisdiction, at least [in] the areas that we control,” Duterte said. “I have ordered the armed forces to occupy all these islands and put up the Philippine flag [there],” he said.
“This coming Independence Day, I may go to Pagasa to raise the flag. We want to make a strong point that that is ours,” he said.
Pagasa Island is the second-largest island in the Kalayaan group in the Spratlys occupied by the Philippines. It is located 480 kilometers west of Puerto Princesa City and is part of the municipality of Kalayaan.
Occupied by the Philippines since 1970, Pagasa is tightly protected by the military and the population is composed of soldiers and their families.
The island has a 1,300-meter airstrip and structures, including a municipal hall and an elementary school.
The military has requested funds to upgrade the runway on Pagasa and the living quarters of troops stationed there, but work on the improvements has been deferred in keeping with an agreement between the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and China to maintain the status quo in the disputed South China Sea.
The agreement, however, did not stop China from building artificial islands on seven reefs in the Spratlys, including some claimed by the Philippines.