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Duterte orders military to occupy South China Sea areas

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, right, reviews the troops with Army Chief Lt. Gen. Glorioso Miranda, left, during the 120th anniversary celebration of the Philippine Army Tuesday, April 4, 2017 at Fort Bonifacio in Taguig City, Philippines. AP/Bullit Marquez

MANILA, Philippines (3rd update, 7:33 p.m.) — The Philippines will be shoring up its presence in the South China Sea as President Duterte has ordered the military to occupy at least nine Philippine-controlled islands to make a "strong point" about the country’s sovereignty over these areas. 

During a press briefing in Puerto Princesa, Palawan, Duterte said that there is a need to maintain jurisdiction over the disputed waters.

"We tried to be friends with everybody but we have to maintain our jurisdiction now, at least the areas under our control. And I have ordered the armed forces to occupy all – these so many islands, I think nine or ten – build structures and place the Philippine flag," Duterte said after delivering a speech before soldiers at Camp Artemio Ricarte.

The Philippines controls nine islets in the disputed Spratlys region, the largest of which is Pag-asa, an area under Palawan’s fifth class town Kalayaan. Other Philippine-occupied islets in Spratlys are Ayungin Shoal, Lawak Island, Parola Island, Patag Island, Kota Island, Rizal Reef, Likas Island and Panata Island.

"Mukhang agawan kasi ito ng isla eh (There seem to be a scramble for islands). And what’s ours now at least kunin na natin (we should claim) and make a strong point there that it is ours," Duterte told reporters.

On July 2016, the United Nations-backed arbitral tribunal based in the Hague, Netherlands issued a ruling on the Philippines' complaint against China's nine-dash line claim over the South China Sea.

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Even as Duterte earlier said he would set aside the arbitral tribunal's ruling in efforts to build stronger ties with China, he seems to have changed his stance on the issue. The president, who has been accused of being too cozy with China, said the Philippines would assert its ownership over the areas it controls.

"We have to fortify. I must build bunkers there or houses and make provisions for habitation," Duterte said.

Spratlys-bound on Independence Day?

Duterte also said he "may" visit Pag-asa Island on June 12 to mark Independence Day. The island is being occupied by about 180 people, including soldiers.

"In the coming Independence Day, I might, I may go to Pag-asa Island to raise the flag there," he said.

Duterte also vowed to support improvements and repairs of the runway in Pag-asa.

“The money is there. I don’t know how thethe Army or the engineering battalion would do it. But that development there has my full support,” he said.

This follows reports that Beijing is near completion of its air bases on the "Big Three"—Subi (Zamora), Mischief (Panganiban) and Fiery Cross (Kagitingan) Reefs.

The two rival claimants are set to hold talks in China on the sea row in May. Duterte's predecessor, President Benigno Aquino III, eventually adopted a policy rejecting negotiations over the dispute claiming these were proven futile.

Plan may backfire, says analyst

Analyst Euan Graham, director of the International Security Program at Sydney-based think tank Lowy Institute, said Duterte's "flip" on the South China Sea issue is not surprising given his mercurial nature. The move, however, is likely to achieve the opposite outcome.

"The president risks repeating the mistakes of 2012 in Scarborough Shoal on a much bigger scale, handing Beijing a golden opportunity to respond in kind by militarising the features it occupies in the Spratlys," Graham told Philstar.com in an online interview.

In 2012, the Philippines deployed a warship to arrest Chinese fishermen who extracted endangered clams, corals and sharks around Scarborough Shoal, known locally as Panatag. Chinese ships were dispatched to prevent the Philippine vessel from detaining the fishermen, leading to a ten-week standoff.

For Graham, while Duterte's order is likely meant to build up Philippines' leverage ahead of the bilateral negotiations in May, it may again give China reason to escalate the tension in the waters.

"So he is trying to strengthen his hand—though this is much harder to do after all the things he has said to downplay China’s strategic threat to the Philippines," the security expert said. — with Patricia Lourdes Viray and Camille Diola

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