Duterte set to maintain geopolitical balance in disputed sea
DAVAO CITY—President Duterte on Monday said his order to the military to reinforce islands in the South China Sea controlled by the Philippines was to maintain the geopolitical balance, and assured China that no “offensive weapons” would be placed there.
Mr. Duterte said the Philippines wanted peace and friendship with China but Manila needed to bolster what territory it had in the South China Sea because “everybody’s grabbing” islands in the Spratly archipelago.
Mr. Duterte set off alarm bells on Thursday, including in Beijing, when he said he had ordered troops to occupy uninhabited islets and shoals in the Spratlys claimed by the Philippines.
China’s foreign ministry on Friday said it hoped the Philippines could continue to properly manage maritime disputes with China.
Philippine defense and military officials subsequently clarified Mr. Duterte’s comments, saying the plans were to upgrade existing facilities on the Philippines’ inhabited islands and reefs in the South China Sea and not occupy new territories.
The Philippines occupies Pagasa Island (international name: Thitu Island), Likas Island (West York Island), Parola Island (Northeast Cay), Lawak Island (Nanshan Island), Kota Island (Loaita Island), Patag Island (Flat Island), Panata Island (Lankiam Island), Balagtas Reef (Irving Reef) and Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) in the Spratlys.
In addition, the Philippines claims Kagitingan Reef (Fiery Cross Reef), Calderon Reef (Cuarteron Reef), Burgos Reef (Gaven Reef), Mabini Reef (Johnson South Reef), Panganiban Reef (Mischief Reef), Zamora Reef (Subi Reef) and McKennan Reef (Hughes Reef), which are also claimed by China and Vietnam.
No military buildup
“I’d like to address myself to the Chinese government … I ordered the occupation of the 10 or nine islands that were just near our shores because there’s a heightening of geopolitical issues and eventually maybe a violent low-intensity war over here,” Mr. Duterte told a news conference here before leaving on a three-country trip to the Middle East on Monday.
Mr. Duterte said the Philippines would not engage in any military buildup and opposed any attempt to deploy weapons on the islands.
“For the information of China, we will not place there any offensive weapons, not even one gun,” he said.
“We will just try to maintain the balance of the geopolitical situation there,” he said.
China claims almost all of the South China Sea, through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year.
Neighbors Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims in the strategic waterway.
Mr. Duterte said the Philippines would also strengthen its claim to the resource-rich Benham Rise, an underwater landmass off the eastern coast of Luzon.
He said he would rename Benham Rise Philippine Rise or Philippine Ridge through an executive order upon his return to the Philippines from the Middle East.
“That’s ours. We will hang on to it,” he said.
The military will enforce Mr. Duterte’s order by deploying additional troops to islands and reefs occupied by the Philippines, according to Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Gen. Eduardo Año.
Ayungin Shoal, where the government grounded an old naval hospital ship, the BRP Sierra Madre, in 1999 to mark Philippine territory in the Spratlys, will also get additional troops.
A small Marine garrison mans the BRP Sierra Madre.
“We will reinforce our troops and build structures,” Año told reporters at Davao International Airport.
He, however, did not explain what structures would be built on the islands.
Mr. Duterte puts the blame for current tensions in the South China Sea squarely on the United States, for not intervening to stop China from building and arming artificial islands in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone.
“If they fight each other, we will be hit. Everybody knows, the United States will be stockpiling their weapons there. And they said they [would] not,” he said, without elaborating.
“I do not want to get involved in a war between nations. I have extended my hand and friendship to the US government,” he said.
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