President Duterte has mobilised the navy to deploy into areas of the South China Sea that the Philippines claim as their sovereign territory. This represents a shift in policy for the Philippines. Duterte has been developing a close relationship with China and the decision to send troops the uninhabited islands in the South China Sea is likely to anger the only superpower in the region.
During the 2016 Presidential election; the South China Sea was a contentious focal point. Duterte made a controversial yet crowd pleasing claim that he would ride a jet ski to a disputed island occupied by China and personally stake the Philippines claims. The deployment of Philippine troops to disputed territory comes just over two weeks after harsh criticism from an opposition Congressman. Gary Alejano scoffed at President Duterte for not fulfilling his promise of riding a jet ski to the West Philippine sea and asserting the country’s territorial claims.
In a move that has the potential to silence critics on his South China Sea policy, Duterte told reporters in Palawan yesterday that:
“We tried to be friends with everybody but we have to maintain our jurisdiction now, at least the areas under our control. And I have ordered the Armed Forces to occupy all – these so many islands, I think nine or 10 – build structures and place the Philippine flag……..In the coming Independence Day, I might, I may go to Pag-asa Island to raise the flag there.”
“Mukhang agawan kasi ito ng isla eh (There seems to be a scramble for islands). And what’s ours now at least kunin na natin (we should claim) and make a strong point there that it is ours,” he added.
Pag-asa, also known as Thitu, is one of the Spratly Islands, an area consisting of more than 100 small islands and reefs surrounded by rich fishing grounds and potentially large gas and oil deposits. The territorial sovereignty of these islands are claimed in their entirety by China, Taiwan and Vietnam, while portions are claimed by Malaysia and the Philippines.
China has come under international scrutiny in the past few years as they have been using their huge military might to advance its own claims to the area of ocean by building shoals into artificial islands and placing military facilities on them.
Duterte may seem provocative in his latest mobilisation of troops, although this could simply be a case of posturing in a bid to not lose domestic political support. Asia expert Bonnie Glaser at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, thinks that Duterte’s recent claims are a response to growing domestic pressure being put on him over issues of Maritime security.
Duterte has already somewhat retreated in his position over the South China Sea. He said last month that it was pointless trying to challenge China’s fortification of its man-made islands and ridiculed the media for taking his jet-ski comments seriously.
“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.