Duterte orders Philippine troops to ‘occupy’ islands

AFP, MANILA

Fri, Apr 07, 2017 - Page 1

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte yesterday said he has ordered troops to deploy on unoccupied South China Sea islands, boosting the military presence on remote reefs claimed by Manila in a move that could provoke rival claimants, including Beijing.

“It looks like everybody is making a grab for the islands there, so we better live on those that are still vacant,” he told reporters during a televised visit to a military camp on the western island of Palawan, near the disputed Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島).

China asserts sovereignty over almost all of the resource-rich South China Sea, despite rival claims by Taiwan and Southeast Asian neighbors, and has rapidly built reefs into artificial islands capable of hosting military aircraft.

Duterte has previously sought to improve his nation’s relations with Beijing by adopting a nonconfrontational approach over their competing claims in the strategically vital waters.

However, the president appeared to alter his tone with his announcement yesterday, saying it was time to “erect structures there and raise the Philippine flag.”

“I have ordered the armed forces to occupy all,” Duterte said.

“At least, let us get what is ours now and make a strong point there that it is ours,” he said, adding that Manila was claiming “nine or 10” islands, reefs and cays in the Spratly archipelago.

The Philippine Department of National Defense later said that nine outcrops “are already in our possession” and occupied by the Philippine Marine Corps, including Thitu Island (Jhongye Island, 中業島), where the military maintains an airstrip.

Its statement suggested that Duterte’s plan was to beef up contingents on the reefs.

“The president wants facilities built, such as barracks for the men, water [desalination] and sewage disposal systems, power generators, lighthouses and shelters for fishermen,” the department said.

After China occupied Mischief Reef (Meiji Reef, 美濟礁) in the mid-1990s, the Philippine Navy marooned a decrepit vessel atop nearby Second Thomas Shoal (Renai Shoal, 仁愛暗沙) to assert Manila’s territorial claim and has kept the rusting boat manned ever since.

Duterte said he could visit Thitu Island on June 12 to mark Philippine Independence Day and raise the nation’s flag there.

An official at the Chinese embassy in Manila seemed surprised when asked by reporters to comment on Duterte’s declaration, but referred questions on the matter to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing.

Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have also sparred with Beijing over territory in the disputed waterway.