Duterte orders troops to disputed South China Sea reefs

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he planned to plant a flag on the island of Thitu and fortify it with barracks.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said he planned to plant a flag on the island of Thitu and fortify it with barracks. PHOTO: EPA

MANILA (AFP, REUTERS) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Thursday (April 6) he has ordered troops to deploy on unoccupied South China Sea islands and 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 visit to a military camp on the western island of Palawan, near the disputed Spratly group.  

“I have ordered the armed forces to occupy all.  

“At least, let us get what is ours now and make a strong point there that it is ours,” he said.

The defence department later said that nine outcrops “are already in our possession” and occupied by marines, including Thitu island where the Philippine 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, light houses, and shelters for fishermen,” the defence department said. 

Duterte’s plan is unlikely to sit well with China, which lays claim to almost all the South China Sea, despite a fast-warming relationship between the two sides in recent months.  

Duterte also told reporters on Thursday he would visit the island of Thitu, the largest of the Philippine-controlled Spratly Islands, and build a barracks for servicemen operating in the area.

“In the coming Independence Day, I may go to Pagasa island to raise the flag there,” Duterte told reporters, using the local name for Thitu.  

The Philippines marks 119th year of independence from more than three centuries of Spanish rule on June 12.  Thitu is close to Subi Reef, one of seven man-made islands in the Spratlys that China is accused of militarising with surface-to-air missiles, among other armaments.  

Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims in the strategic waters.  

Duterte has previously sought to improve his nation’s relations with China as he sought billions of dollars worth of investments and grants by adopting a non-confrontational approach over their competing claims in the strategically vital waters.  

His efforts to engage China, months after a tribunal in the Hague ruled that Beijing did not have historic rights to the South China Sea, marks an astonishing reversal in foreign policy since he took office on June 30.  

An official at the Chinese embassy in Manila seemed surprised when asked by AFP to comment on Duterte’s declaration, but referred questions on the matter to the Chinese foreign ministry in Beijing.

The two neighbours are scheduled to hold talks in China in May to tackle issues related to the sea row.  

US President Donald Trump’s administration so far has taken a tough stance on China’s claims in the South China Sea, insisting it will defend international interests there.  

Trump is set to sit down with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping later in the day to discuss a range of issues which will likely including tensions in the South China Sea.