MANILA • The Philippines will upgrade existing facilities on its inhabited islands and reefs in the disputed South China Sea and not occupy new territories, following a 2002 informal code, defence and military officials said yesterday.
A statement from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's office on Thursday said he had ordered troops to occupy uninhabited islands and shoals that the country claims in the waters, asserting its sovereignty in an apparent change of tack likely to anger China.
The firebrand leader also said he may visit a Philippine-controlled island to raise the national flag.
But defence and military officials have clarified his comments.
"The President's order was very crystal clear. Occupy only the existing areas that we claim," said a navy commander who is privy to South China Sea development plans. "The Philippines is not allowed to... occupy new territories in the Spratlys, based on the 2002 agreement."
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, where about US$5 trillion (S$7 trillion) worth of seaborne goods pass yearly. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims.
The President's comments followed a briefing by defence and military brass about South China Sea developments in Palawan, according to his communications office.
"What he really meant was the already occupied areas," military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla told reporters on Thursday.
Meanwhile, China's Foreign Ministry said yesterday that it hoped the Philippines could continue to properly manage maritime disputes with China.