In an apparent policy flip-flop, President Duterte has today (Thursday, April 6) ordered the occupation of uninhabited islands and shoals it claims in the disputed South China Sea.
The president, who prior to his election joked that he would jet ski into the South China Sea to reinforce Manila’s claims there, also said he might visit a Philippine-controlled island to raise the national flag.
“The unoccupied, which are ours, let’s live on it,” he told reporters during a visit to a military base in Palawan.
“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.
“We tried to be friends with everybody but we have to maintain our jurisdiction now, at least the areas under our control,
The plan is certain to rankle China, which lays claim to almost all the South China Sea, and has recently been enjoying improved ties with the Philippines under President Duterte.
Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims in the strategic waters, through which about $5 trillion of trade passes annually.
During a visit to Beijing in October, the president announced his “separation” from the US, declaring he had realigned with China. He also said they agreed to resolve the South China Sea dispute through talks.
His efforts to improve ties with China, just months after a tribunal in the Hague ruled in the Philippines’ favour over part of the disputed waters claimed by both countries.
The Philippines occupies nine islands and outcrops in the South China Sea, including a 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 Spratly Islands and build an army barracks.
“In the coming Independence Day, I may go to Pagasa island to raise the flag there,” he added, using an alternative name for the island.
The Philippines marks its 119th year of independence from Spanish rule on June 12.
Thitu is close to Subi Reef, one of seven man-made islands in the Spratlys that China has been accused of militarising with surface-to-air missiles.
Last month, Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana said the military would strengthen its facilities in the Spratlys by building a port, paving a dirt airstrip and making other repairs.
Just last month, the president said last month it was pointless trying to challenge China’s militarisation of the islands and ridiculed the media for believing his comment that he would jet ski to one of China’s reclaimed reefs.
“We cannot stop them because they are building it with their mind fixed that they own the place. China will go to war.
“People want me to jet ski. These fools believed me.”