Manila (AFP) – The Philippines’ military said Friday that it plans to upgrade and improve facilities on islands it already occupies in the disputed South China Sea, not embark on a new land grab.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Thursday that he had ordered the armed forces to “occupy all” remote reefs claimed by Manila.
Rival claimant Beijing responded Friday with a pledge to “firmly safeguard its territorial sovereignty, its maritime rights and interests” in the South China Sea, which is rich in resources and hosts vital shipping lanes.
The firebrand Filipino leader said he wanted “nine or 10” islands occupied and fortified, but did not make clear whether he was referring to the nine islands already held by the army, or to some of the 40-odd other Spratly features also claimed by Manila.
Duterte’s announcement had appeared to be a sharp departure from his previously cordial overtures to Beijing and non-confrontational approach.
But military officials on Friday said they did not think order required the army to occupy new outcrops.
“The context with which we take the order is to improve on our already occupied islands, islets and features,” military spokesman Colonel Edgard Arevalo told AFP.
The defence department said the plan was to add military barracks, water desalination systems, power generators, light houses, and shelters for fishermen to the features that the Philippines currently occupy.
“The president recently announced plans to improve, and implement the Pag-asa development plan which includes nine areas,” Duterte spokesman Ernesto Abella said, referring Pag-asa municipality, the Philippines’ political subdivision for the Spratly islands that it claims.
“This is part of his mandate to serve the best interests of the nation,” he added.
All other major outcrops inside the section of the Spratlys claimed by Manila are already occupied by troops from other claimant countries, Filipino maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal told AFP Friday.
Only a few “reefs and shoals” do not currently have soldiers on them, he said, adding that the Philippine government would likely back away from Duterte’s explosive original proposal.
China claims most of the sea and in recent years has been building up disputed reefs into artificial islands that can house military facilities, further raising tensions.
“We hope the Philippines side can continue to properly manage maritime disputes with China and safeguard together the sound and stable situation of China-Philippines relations,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying said at a regular press briefing Friday.