Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered the military to seize and occupy a group of uninhabited islands in the South China Sea, a move sure to inflame a long-running territorial dispute with China.
Duterte revealed his plans Thursday during a visit to a military camp in the western province of Palawan, telling reporters he plans to raise the Philippine flag on “about nine or 10” islands in the hotly contested Spratly Island region.
China has claimed sovereignty over the entire 3.5-million-square-kilometer, resource-rich South China Sea — ignoring competing claims from such neighbors as Manila, Taiwan, Vietnam and Malaysia — and has aggressively begun converting many reefs into artificial islands that can be used as military bases.
“We tried to be friends with everybody, but we have to maintain our jurisdiction now,” Duterte told reporters, citing an apparent “grab” to seize territory. “Let us get what is ours now, and make a strong point that it is ours.”
He said he may visit one of those islands, Pag-asa, to raise the Philippine flag on the nation’s Independence Day, June 12.
Since taking office last year, Duterte has sought to mend fences with China, which were strained over the territorial disputes under his predecessor, Benigno Aquino. Aquino challenged Beijing’s sweeping claim over the South China Sea with The Hague-based Permanent Court of Arbitration, which ruled in Manila’s favor last year.
The Philippines and China engaged in a tense standoff in 2012 over Scarborough Shoal, a tiny land feature 230 kilometers from Luzon Island claimed by both countries, now seized by China.