Duterte Orders Military to Parts of South China Sea Claimed by Philippines

APRIL 6, 2017 /NYTIMES

Mr. Duterte said during a visit to a military headquarters on Palawan Island that he would personally raise the Philippine flag on Pag-asa Island on June 12, the country’s Independence Day.

Pag-asa, also known as Thitu, is one of the Spratly Islands, an archipelago of about 14 islets and dozens of reefs and shoals scattered near the middle of the South China Sea. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines have overlapping claims in the archipelago, which has no native population. They are west of Palawan Island.

The Philippines occupies nine of the roughly 50 islands and reefs that it claims in the Spratlys, including Pag-asa. In recent years, China has moved aggressively to advance its own claims in the sea by building shoals into artificial islands and putting military and other facilities on them. Vietnam and Taiwan also occupy some islands and reefs in the archipelago.

“We tried to be friends with everybody,” Mr. Duterte said, “but we have to maintain our jurisdiction now, at least the areas under our control.”

Mr. Duterte said he had instructed the military to “put structures and the Philippine flag” on its islands and reefs, and to repair the runway on Pag-asa, the second-largest of the Spratly Islands with an area of about 91 acres.

“What’s ours now, at least let’s get them and make a strong point there that it is ours,” he said.

It was not clear, however, whether Mr. Duterte intended the military to go beyond its nine current islands and reefs to occupy others that are now vacant. The Philippines did so in the 1990s when it intentionally grounded an obsolete World War II-era transport ship in Ayungin Shoal, also called Second Thomas Shoal. The Philippine Navy continues to staff that ship with rotating crews to mark the country’s territorial claim.

Mr. Duterte also mentioned Benham Rise, an undersea plateau in the Philippine Sea where there is no territorial dispute but where Chinese survey ships have been sighted.

But he did not appear to refer to Scarborough Shoal, a major disputed reef in the South China Sea north of the Spratlys that has been a flash point between the Philippines and China. An international court in The Hague ruled last year in the Philippines’ favor, saying that China had been interfering with the Philippines’ fishing and maritime rights in the shoal.

Analysts said Mr. Duterte’s reversal of stance on the South China Sea appeared to have been calculated, but its ultimate purpose was not apparent.

“It is surprising and perplexing,” said Jay Batongbacal, a maritime law expert at the University of the Philippines who tracks the South China Sea dispute.

“It’s suddenly and radically opposite to his previous refrain of not taking provocative action and cultivating good relations with China,” Professor Batongbacal said. “Either he is merely playing to the gallery or is about to provoke a serious crisis.” Read more…

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