Philippines President Duterte Orders Troops to Occupy South China Sea “Islands”

China President Xi Jinping’s visit to the US has set off a lot of mischief. First we had a North Korean missile launch, then the US airstrike on Syria, and now Philippines President Duterte poking a stick in China’s eye. Even if Duterte doesn’t follow through, his latest threat is a reversal of his recent policy of making nice to China. From Reuters (hat tip furzy):

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday ordered troops to occupy uninhabited islands
and shoals it claims in the disputed South China Sea, asserting Philippine sovereignty in an apparent change of tack likely to anger China.

The firebrand leader, who on the campaign trail joked that he would jet ski to a Chinese man-made island in the South China Sea to reinforce Manila’s claim, also said he may visit a Philippine-controlled island to raise the national flag.

“The unoccupied, which are ours, let’s live on it,” Duterte told reporters during a visit to a military base in Palawan, near the disputed waters.

“It looks like everyone is making a grab for the islands there. So we better live on those that are still unoccupied. What’s ours now, we claim it and make a strong point from there.”

Duterte’s plan is unlikely to sit well with China, which lays claim to almost all the South China Sea, especially as it comes amid a fast-warming relationship in recent months.

China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Vietnam contest all or parts of the South China Sea. This has led to confrontations between China and some of its neighbors over the strategic trade route.

CNN provided a map of the competing claims:

Reports are quick to point out that Duterte has a history of wild talk that isn’t always backed by action. From CNN:

Under Duterte’s predecessor, Benigno Aquino, Manila won a landmark case at an international tribunal in the Hague, which ruled China had no legal basis for the bulk of its claims in the waters.

Duterte’s administration has been cozying up to Beijing since his election last year, and territorial disputes have been pushed to the background.

In a visit to the Chinese capital in October, Duterte said to Chinese President Xi Jinpingthat “America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow.”…

“By cozying up to China and trash-talking America, Duterte has achieved something that Washington couldn’t deliver: a peaceful resolution to the Scarborough Shoal standoff,” Ashley  Townsend, a regional expert at the University of Sydney, wrote for CNN Opinion at the time.

Duterte’s latest comments seem to mark a departure from his previous policy, and suggests a desire to pursue the type of militarization Beijing has been accused of bringing to the region.

“Even those, those vacant (islands) that are considered ours, let’s live there,” Duterte said.

“It’s like we’re all competing to take these islands. And what’s ours now at least, let’s take it and make a strong point there that this is ours.”

He said the Philippines should “fortify” its territory: “(We) must build bunkers or houses there and make provisions for habitation.”

Yet another reason to keep an eye out on the South China Sea hostilities.

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  1. miles

    Quite a curious week in the world.

    Note also Jamie Dimon’s and Larry Fink’s vague premonitions of tough times ahead for the USeconomy, blamed naturally on high taxes and regulation, and some vague concerns about stock valuations coming from the Fed.(Read on Bloomberg).

    I also caught something curious on the radio about the EU approving €6 billion in Syrian reconstruction funds yesterday. Dont know if that was hearsay.

    I’m seeing the seeds for the next elaborate spectacle of disaster capitalism beginning to germinate…

  2. PlutoniumKun

    Looks like a bit of opportunism from Duterte. He’s been pretty consistent in his pro-China line so this is surprising – possibly he thinks that China is too wrapped up with dealing with Trump and North Korea now to pay too much attention, plus he may see an advantage in playing of Trump and the Chinese. He’s also having his first bout of domestic political problems, so he may see this as a crowd pleasing distraction. However, the Philippines has a minimal Navy and air force, so he is playing with fire.

  3. makedoanmend

    Date Check:

    This is April 7th – not the 1st – right?

    April 7th = April Lunacy Day?

  4. blert

    The South China Sea is famous for its cyclones. ( aka hurricanes )

    None of the islands figures to stay above water once a cyclone passes through.

    Red China doesn’t have the technology to drill for deep ocean oil, either.

    So the whole build up is strategically bizarre.

  5. William D. Markle

    My guess is that China will interpret this in a positive way, on the order of
    ‘possession is 9/10 of the law.’ If the Philippines is going to occupy a few
    rocks by way of asserting ownership, then that serves as an international
    model for the shoals already occupied by China. And China has then
    achieved most of what it wants in the South China Sea.

    1. Johnny Pistola

      Sensible motive. Beneficial to China’s claim and Duterte is doing them a favor.

    2. blert

      Perfect logic.

      Now if Beijing can stop Mother Nature from blowing these synthetic islands back under the waves.

    1. Am Expat in Mindanao

      ..also, a quick follow-up if I may.
      Thwarting Vietamese presence would serve China’s interests without China having to play the heavy in this case and, importantly, appearing to defend Philippine territory always plays well at home, sentiments expressed by other posters. I don’t get it all but President Duterte is still very popular dispite the dreadful bloodshed, but I do think there is some underlying discomfort with his seeming ease at giving away the store in the South China Sea and, of late, Benham Rise to the east in the Philippine Sea.

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