PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines to occupy all islands being claimed by the country in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).
Speaking to reporters following a visit to a Palawan military camp, Duterte said he wanted to “maintain our jurisdiction” over the islands in the disputed waters.
“I have ordered the Armed Forces to occupy all. There are so many islands, I think nine or 10, put structures there and the Philippine flag,” Duterte said.
“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,” he added.
Duterte bared plans to go to Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island on Independence Day, June 12, to raise the Philippine flag there.
Pag-asa Island, the largest of those that make up the Kalayaan Island Group and the second largest in the whole of the Spratlys, is a fifth-class municipality with about 300 residents and soldiers. The island is located 480 kilometers off the coast of Palawan.
The President also said he will change the name of Benham Rise – the 13-million-hectare undersea area off northeastern Luzon that was declared part of the country’s extended continental shelf by a United Nations body in 2012 – to Philippine Ridge.
“I will officially claim it as ours and rename it. I will call it Philippine Ridge,” he said.
China grabbed Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, a traditional fishing ground well within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, following a 2012 standoff with the Philippine Navy.
This forced the previous Aquino administration to seek a ruling from a United Nations-backed arbitration tribunal in The Hague in the Netherlands, which ruled in favor of the Philippines in July 2016.
The tribunal declared that Filipino fishermen are entitled to fishing rights at Panatag Shoal and that the Kalayaan Islands, as well as Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal and Recto (Reed) Bank, are all within the exclusive economic zone of the Philippines.
China has repeatedly refused to recognize the ruling and continued to build structures in the South China Sea. It has built airstrips on Fiery Cross, Subi and Mischief Reefs.
Under Duterte, the Philippines warmed its relations with China, but the President has said he would invoke the tribunal ruling at some point in the future.
Analysts warn that building on Panatag Shoal would radically change the situation since it is just 230 kilometers (143 miles) from Luzon.
Outposts on the shoal would put Chinese jet fighters and missiles within easy striking distance of military bases in the Philippines, some of which could host American troops.
The shoal also commands the northeast exit of the sea, so a Chinese military outpost there could stop other countries’ navies from using the waters.