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Defense, military chiefs visit disputed South China Sea island

Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana tours the Philippine-claimed Thitu Island during his visit to the Spratlys Group of islands off the disputed South China Sea in western Philippines Friday, April 21, 2017. The visit Friday was aimed to assert the country's claim to the heartland of a disputed area where China is believed to have added missiles on man-made islands. The South China Sea issue is expected to be discussed in the 20th ASEAN Summit of Leaders next week. AP/Bullit Marquez

PAG-ASA, Philippines — The Philippine defense secretary and military chief of staff visited a Philippine-occupied island in the South China Sea on Friday to assert the country's claim to the heartland of a disputed area where China is believed to have added missiles on man-made islands.

The trip led by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on an air force C-130 aircraft to the island Filipinos call Pag-asa will likely infuriate China, which has claimed virtually the entire sea and aggressively tried to fortify its foothold, to the consternation of rival claimant governments and the United States.

Philippine troopers raise the Philippine flag during a ceremony upon the arrival of Philippine Defense Secretray Delfin Lorenzana, Armed Forces Chief Gen. Eduardo Ano and other officials on the Philippine-claimed Thitu Island off the disputed Spratlys chain of islands in the South China Sea Friday, April 21, 2017 in western Philippines. The visit Friday was aimed to assert the country's claim to the heartland of a disputed area where China is believed to have added missiles on man-made islands. The South China Sea issue is expected to be discussed in the 20th ASEAN Summit of Leaders next week. AP/Bullit Marquez
Philippine troops march as a Philippine Air Force C-130 transport plane carrying Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, Armed Forces Chief Gen. Eduardo Ano and other officials, sits on the tarmac at the Philippine-claimed Thitu Island off the disputed Spratlys chain of islands in the South China Sea Friday, April 21, 2017 in western Philippines. Their visit Friday was aimed to assert the country's claim to the heartland of a disputed area where China is believed to have added missiles on man-made islands. The South China Sea issue is expected to be discussed in the 20th ASEAN Summit of Leaders next week. Seen in the background above the horizon, center, is the Chinese man-made island of Subi Reef. AP/Bullit Marquez
Philippine Defense Secretray Delfin Lorenzana, center, Armed Forces Chief Gen. Eduardo Ano, second from left, and other officials take their oath of allegiance to the flag during their visit to the Philippine-claimed Thitu Island off the disputed South China Sea in western Philippines Friday, April 21, 2017. Their visit Friday was aimed to assert the country's claim to the heartland of the disputed area where China is believed to have added missiles on man-made islands. The South China Sea issue is expected to be discussed in the 20th ASEAN Summit of Leaders next week. AP/Bullit Marquez

President Rodrigo Duterte has said China dissuaded him from flying to the island, also known internationally as Thitu, to raise his country's flag when the Philippines celebrates its Independence Day on June 12.

"So because of our friendship with China and because we value your friendship, we will not, I will not go there to raise the Philippine flag," he said in a speech last week in Saudi Arabia. He said he may send his son instead.

Lorenzana planned to inspect a dirt runway on the island in the Spratlys chain of islands, reefs and atolls that has been partly eroded and have lunch with Filipino troops and residents in a fishing village on the island.

The government plans to repair the 1.2 kilometer (0.75 mile)-long runway to allow more flights and improve safety. It plans to fortify small buildings on the island and eight much smaller reefs and atolls occupied by Filipino forces in the far-flung region.

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With Lorenzana were the military chief of staff, Gen. Eduardo Ano and other military top brass with about 40 journalists on a trip that may highlight the territorial disputes a week before Duterte hosts an annual regional summit in Manila that's expected to spotlight the South China Sea conflicts.

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