PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to occupy undisputed Philippine islands in the South China (West Philippine) Sea and strengthen the country’s territorial claims.
In a press conference during his visit to Palawan on Thursday, April 6, Duterte said he wanted the Philippines to “maintain jurisdiction” over “areas under [its] control.”
“And I have ordered the Armed Forces to occupy all – these so many islands, I think nine or 10 – build structures and place the Philippine flag,” he told reporters.
Duterte also announced that he may visit Pag-asa Island on Independence Day, June 12, to “raise the flag there.”
Also referred to as Tithu Island, Pag-asa Island is located 480 kilometers off the coast of Palawan. It is the largest Philippine-controlled island among the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) in the disputed Spratlys region.
Duterte vowed full support on the improvements and airport repairs in the island.
“The money is there. I don’t know how the Army or the engineering battalion would do it. But that development there has my full support,” he affirmed.
Apart from Pag-asa, the Philippines also occupies the following areas in the Spratlys region: Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, Balagtas (Irving) Reef, Kota (Loaita) Island, Lawak (Nanshan) Island, Likas (West York) Island, Panata (Lankiam Cay) Island, Parola (Northeast Cay) Island, and Rizal (Commodore) Reef.
“We have to fortify. I must build bunkers there or houses and make provisions for habitation,” the president said.
He further added, “Let’s occupy all the unoccupied territories. This looks like a mad scramble for islands, and what’s ours now at least, let’s get it and make a strong point that it is ours.”
In jest, Duterte remarked that he would also replace the rusty BRP Sierra Madre ship — which serves as an outpost for marines at Ayungin Shoal — with a cruise ship.
“I will replace it with a luxury liner. There will be waiters, food, swimming pool so that the soldiers stationed there would get fat,” he said.
As part of the Philippine government’s renewed efforts to assert its territorial claims, Duterte said he also plans to rename Benham Rise.
“I will officially claim it as ours and rename it. Not Benham Rise… I would call it the ‘Philippine Ridge,’” the president announced. “It’s like a ridge, the continental shelf is continuous down below. So might as well claim a ridge because it connects one ridge to another.”
Located along the Pacific Ocean 250 kilometers (155 miles) east of Isabela, the Benham Rise is believed to be rich in mineral and gas deposits, with Philippines as its only claimant.
Development of PH-owned areas
Reacting to Duterte’s remarks, Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea at the University of the Philippines Director Jay Batongbacal said that “ordering the AFP to occupy, build on, and raise the flag over islands and reefs that have already been occupied, built on, and flying the flag for decades initially makes no sense.”
“It can make sense if applied to an island or reef that is currently unoccupied,” Batongbacal wrote in a Facebook post.
He went on to say, “If what was meant was to simply order the repair of the runway on Pag-asa and the building of new facilities on presently occupied islands, then that’s exactly what should have been said. No more, no less.”
In a statement, Malacañang clarified that Duterte merely wants to “develop” the islands that are already under the Philippines’ control when he said he ordered the military to “occupy” the areas.
“He wants to develop what we have already occupied,” Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana earlier said that Philippine troops had long been occupying the nine islands in the KIG.
“We have nine islands in the KIG that are already in our possession since long ago, including Pag-asa,” Lorenzana noted in a statement.
He added, “The president wants facilities built such as barracks for the men, water (desalination) and sewage disposal system, power generators (conventional and renewable), lighthouses and shelters for fishermen.”
Parts of Spratlys region have also been claimed by Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam.