Philippines' Duterete orders occupation of South Sea islands

07 April 2017

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday ordered the military occupation of uninhabited islands and shoals it claims in the disputed South China Sea, asserting Philippine sovereignty in a move calculated to anger China.

The firebrand leader, who on the campaign trail joked that he would jet ski to a Chinese man-made island in the South China Sea to reinforce Manila`s claim, also said he may visit a Philippine-controlled island to raise the national flag.

"The unoccupied, which are ours, let's live on it," Duterte told reporters during a visit to a military base in Palawan, near the disputed waters.

"It looks like everyone is making a grab for the islands there. So we better live on those that are still unoccupied. What's ours now, we claim it and make a strong point from there."

Duterte's plan is unlikely to sit well with China, which lays claim to almost all the South China Sea, especially as it comes amid a fast-warming relationship in recent months.

China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Vietnam contest all or parts of the South China Sea. This has led to confrontations between China and some of its neighbours over the strategic trade route.

Duterte's comments came just ahead of a first summit meeting between US President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida on Thursday and Friday. China's pursuit of territory in the South China Sea will be among the pressing security issues on the agenda.

The US State Department declined comment on Duterte`s remarks, but has in the past urged rival South China Sea claimants to lower tensions and resolve differences in accordance with international law.

Duterte announced his "separation" from the United States in October, declaring he had realigned with China as the two agreed to resolve their South China Sea dispute through talks.

His efforts to engage China, months after a tribunal in The Hague ruled Beijing did not have historic rights to the South China Sea, in themselves marked a reversal in foreign policy (See: Tribunal rules against Beijing in South China Sea dispute).

The Philippines occupies nine "features", or islands and reefs, in the South China Sea, including a World War II-vintage transport ship which ran aground on Second Thomas Shoal in the late 1990s.

Duterte said he might visit the island of Thitu, the largest of the Philippine-controlled islands in the Spratly archipelago, and build a barracks for servicemen operating in the area.

The Philippines marks its independence day on 12 June.

Thitu is close to Subi Reef, one of seven man-made islands in the Spratly Islands that China is accused of developing as military outposts (See: 'China building aircraft hangars on disputed South Sea islands').

Last month, Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana said the Philippines would strengthen its facilities in the Spratlys by building a new port and paving an existing rough airstrip.

Duterte said last month it was pointless trying to challenge China`s fortification of its man-made islands and ridiculed the media for taking his jet-ski comments seriously.

"We cannot stop them because they are building it with their mind fixed that they own the place. China will go to war," he said.


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