MANILA – Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday ordered the occupation of uninhabited islands and shoals it claims in the disputed South China Sea, asserting Philippine sovereignty in an apparent change of tack.
The firebrand leader, who on the campaign trail joked that he would jet ski to a Chinese man-made island in the South China Sea to reinforce Manila’s claim, also said he may visit a Philippine-controlled island to raise the national flag.
“The unoccupied, which are ours, let’s live on it,” Duterte told reporters during a visit to a military base in Palawan, near the disputed waters.
“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.”
Duterte’s occupation plan is unlikely to sit well with China, which lays claim to almost all the South China Sea, especially as it comes amid a fast-warming relationship between the two sides in recent months.
Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims in the strategic waters.
Duterte announced his “separation” from the United States in October, declaring he had realigned with China as the two agreed to resolve their South China Sea dispute through talks.
His efforts to engage China, months after a tribunal in the Hague ruled that Beijing did not have historic rights to the South China Sea, in themselves marked a reversal in foreign policy.
The Philippines occupies nine “features,” or islands and reefs, in the South China Sea, including a World War II-vintage 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 a barracks for servicemen operating in the area.
“In the coming Independence Day, I may go to Pagasa island to raise the flag there,” Duterte said, using the local name for Thitu.
The Philippines marks its 119th year of independence from more than three centuries of Spanish rule on June 12.
Thitu is close to Subi Reef, one of seven man-made islands in the Spratlys that China is accused of militarizing with surface-to-air missiles, among other armaments.
Last month, Defence Minister Delfin Lorenzana said the military would strengthen its facilities in the Spratlys, building a new port, paving an existing rough airstrip and repairing other structures.
Duterte said last month it was pointless trying to challenge China’s fortification of its man-made islands and ridiculed the media for referring to his comment that he would jet ski to one Beijing’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,” he said. “People want me to jet ski. These fools believed me.”