“We tried to be friends with everybody but we have to maintain our jurisdiction now, at least the areas under our control [in the South China Sea]” declared Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ tough-talking leader, during a Thursday visit to the western island province of Palawan, where he met with military officers. “What’s ours now, at least, let’s get them and make a strong point there that it is ours.”
In a remarkable turn, Duterte ordered Filipino troops to occupy and assert Philippine sovereignty over “nine or 10” disputed land features across the Spratly island chain, a maritime area contested by China and other Southeast Asian nations. Duterte even promised to personally raise the Philippine flag on the Thitu Island (Pag-Asa to Filipinos) on the Philippines’ Independence Day on June 12.
On Friday, Philippine military and defense officials moved to clarify Duterte’s order to deploy and build on uninhabited islands and shoals, saying they planned only to upgrade existing facilities on already inhabited features. They cited a 2002 informal Association of Southeast Asian Nations-China code of conduct for activities in the disputed waters that bars expansionist moves over contested areas.