Duterte orders AFP to occupy Philippine islands in South China Sea

President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the military on Thursday to occupy at least nine islands under the country's control to shore up its presence in the West Philippine Sea. AP/Wong Maye-E, File

MANILA, Philippines -  The Philippines is shoring up its presence in the West Philippine Sea with President Duterte ordering the military to occupy at least nine islands under the country’s control to make a “strong point” as he announced plans to celebrate Independence Day on one of them.

“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 10 – build structures and place the Philippine flag,” Duterte told reporters in Palawan yesterday.

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

“Mukhang agawan kasi ito ng isla eh (There seems 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,” he added.

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 of Kalayaan. Other Philippine-occupied islets and land features in Spratlys are Ayungin Shoal, Lawak Island, Parola Island, Patag Island, Kota Island, Rizal Reef, Likas Island and Panata Island.

These areas are also being claimed by China, which claims to have historic rights over about 90 percent of the South China Sea, a busy sea lane through which about 80 percent of world trade passes. Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan also have overlapping claims.

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Last year, an arbitral tribunal based in The Hague ruled in favor of the Philippines and invalidated China’s expansive claim. China said it does not recognize the ruling.

Duterte had said he was ready to temporarily set aside the arbitral ruling and focus on improving ties with China.

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. 

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

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

Asked about his plans for the BRP Sierra Madre, the rusty ship that serves as outpost for a handful of Marines at Ayungin Shoal, Duterte said in jest that he would replace it with a cruise ship.

“I will replace it with a luxury liner. There will be waiters, food, swimming pool so that the soldiers stationed there would get fat,” the President said. 

Philippine Ridge

He also said the country’s renewed effort to assert its sovereignty over its territories also covers Benham Rise, which he wants renamed Philippine Ridge.

“I will officially claim it as ours and rename it. Not Benham Rise… I would call it the ‘Philippine Ridge’,” he pointed out.

“It’s like a ridge, the continental shelf is continuous down below. So might as well claim a ridge because it connects one ridge to another,” he said.

On orders from Duterte, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Office of the Executive Secretary are now studying the possibility of renaming Benham Rise, to strengthen the country’s sovereign rights over the resource-rich undersea plateau.

Duterte was earlier caught off guard when asked by media about the recent Chinese presence in the area. He said he does not see any problem with the Chinese exercising freedom of navigation in Benham Rise, apparently confusing it with the South China Sea.

Duterte, however, changed his tune after being briefed by the defense and foreign affairs departments on the country’s rights over Benham.

The Philippine Coast Guard has started patrolling Benham Rise after three Chinese survey ships were spotted in the area from July to December last year. Duterte said earlier it was enough that Beijing had given assurance that it recognizes the Philippines’ rights over Benham Rise.

Despite Duterte’s clear order for the military to occupy islands under the country’s control, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana clarified that what the President really wanted was better living conditions for soldiers deployed in the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG).

“We have nine islands in the KIG that are already in our possession since long ago, including Pag-asa. The President wants facilities built such as barracks for the men, water (desalination) and sewage disposal system, power generators (conventional and renewable), lighthouses and shelters for fishermen,” Lorenzana said.

“Perhaps the President was referring to our already occupied areas,” Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla, AFP spokesman, said.

Pag-asa, the second biggest island in the region next to Taiwan’s Itu Aba, used to be a military garrison until the national government transformed it into a civilian community with 300 civilian residents, including children.

The island town is also next to a highly militarized Chinese artificial island built over Zamora (Subi) Reef.

The island has an elementary school, a police station, coast guard station, health center and a municipal building. However, the island’s  Rancudo Airfield remains unpaved.

The island also now has a cell site, a desalination plant as well as generator plant, on top of a solar power facility.

 – With Cecille Suerte Felipe, Jaime Laude, Evelyn Macairan

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