THE military said Friday it will upgrade facilities on islands it already occupies in the disputed West Philippine Sea (South China Sea), and build structures on unoccupied submerged lands or rocks, as ordered by President Rodrigo Duterte.
Gen. Eduardo Año, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff, said the military would reinforce troops stationed on eight islands and a shoal, and could still take over territory within the country’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone.
“But we need to put up structures where our troops can stay. I cannot give you the numbers and location for security reasons,” said Año in a text message.
On Thursday, the President, following a visit to a Palawan military camp, 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.
In response, Año said: “That’s an order from the President and I intend to carry that out.”
Even before the President’s directive, the military has occupied eight islands and a shoal in the West Philippine Sea, Año said. “All others are occupied by China, Vietnam etc.,” he added.
The Philippines controls 10 areas in the West Philippine Sea: Pagasa (Thitu) Island, Likas (West York) Island, Parola (Northeast Cay), Lawak (Nanshan) Island, Kota (Loaita) Island, Patag (Flat) Island, Panata (Lankiam Cay), Rizal (Commodore) Reef, Balagtas (Irving) Reef, and Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal.
The Defense department said the plan was to add military barracks, water desalination systems, power generators, lighthouses, and shelters for fishermen to the features that the Philippines already occupies.
“The context with which we take the order is to improve on our already occupied islands, islets and features,” military spokesman AFP Public Affairs chief Col. Edgard Arevalo told AFP.
“The President recently announced plans to improve, and implement the Pag-asa development plan which includes nine areas,” presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella said, referring Pag-asa Island municipality, the Philippines’ political subdivision for the Kalayaan (Spratly) Islands that it claims.
“This is part of his mandate to serve the best interests of the nation,” he added.
Pag-asa Island is a municipality under Palawan province. It has about 300 residents, mostly military personnel and their families. It is also being claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam.
Filipino maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal told AFP Friday all other major outcrops inside the section of the Spratlys claimed by Manila are already occupied by troops from other claimant countries.
Only a few “reefs and shoals” do not currently have soldiers on them, he said, adding that the Philippine government would likely back away from Duterte’s explosive original proposal.
Duterte’s announcement was a sharp departure from his prior efforts to improve Manila’s relations with Beijing by adopting a non-confrontational approach over their competing claims in the strategically vital waters.
This has sparked domestic criticism that Duterte was not defending Philippine territory in the face of Chinese assertiveness.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Friday said President Duterte was just performing his duty when he ordered the military to occupy all islands within the West Philippine Sea, and announced a plan to raise the flag at the Pag-asa Island on Independence Day.
“The President is performing his mandate with respect to Philippine territory,” DFA spokesman Charles Jose told reporters.
“The aim is to improve the living conditions, safety and personal security of Filipinos in those areas,” he added.
But Jose said the Philippines would “remain committed to improving our relations with China and other partners in the region.”
‘Independent foreign policy’
Duterte announced plans to go to Pag-asa following reports that China was nearly finished with the construction of its facilities in Subi (Zamora), Mischief (Panganiban) and Fiery Cross (Kagitingan) Reefs in the Kalayaan Islands.
The construction of these facilities would allow Beijing to deploy military assets at any time in the region.
“It will be significant that it will be the first time a President visits and commemorates Independence Day in this municipality. It will also be symbolic of our independent foreign policy,” Abella, the presidential spokesman, said.
“If he does push through, he will be accompanied by the governor, the three Palawan congressmen and the leaders of the municipality of Kalayaan,” he added.
A lawmaker however said President Duterte’s order for the AFP to occupy islands in the West Philippine Sea was “useless.”
“In fact, our flag is already planted on these islands. The last time we heard the President speaking of raising the Philippine flag in a disputed territory, he later on admitted that he was merely joking. Let us hold him accountable.
The truthfulness of words must be seen through concrete actions,” Magdalo party-list Rep. Gary Alejano said in a statement.
“There are no more islands in South China Sea to occupy, unless we grab islands from Vietnam and China and run the risk of a shooting war. Even if assuming there are still uninhabited islands to occupy, new occupation is a violation of the existing Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in South China Sea in which the Philippines is a signatory and is faithfully complying with its provisions even if China is not,” Alejano added.
WITH REPORTS FROM AFP, CATHERINE S. VALENTE, JAIME R. PILAPIL AND LLANESCA T. PANTI