Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte shocked international observers last week with a call to occupy the uninhabited islands of the South China Sea before China colonized them, an apparent about-face from his months-long campaign to improve bilateral relations with China.
Duterte assured China that he merely wanted to “maintain the geopolitical balance” in the Spratly Islands on Monday, an archipelago that both China and the Philippines, as well as Vietnam, claim in part.
“For the information of China, we will not place there any offensive weapons, not even one gun,” he promised. “We are just there to claim the island for us because that is really ours. And I have ordered the Armed Forces to build structures there to signify to all that the islands are ours, and the Philippine flag should be placed on the structures.”
“China can relax, we are friends,” he added. “We will not go to war with you.”
Duterte has repeatedly asserted his fears that the Philippine military does not have the assets necessary to defeat China in a war.
The Chinese government claims almost all territory in the South China Sea, including the sovereign territory of the Philippines, Vietnam, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, and the waters off Natuna Island in Indonesia. In a landmark ruling last year, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled that China’s claims were invalid before international law and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas, granting the Philippines full sovereignty over the contested territory.
Last week, Duterte abruptly announced a military operation to reassert Manila’s presence in the Spratly Islands. “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,” he said.
“Even those, those vacant (islands) that are considered ours, let’s live there,” Duterte added. “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.”
“This coming Independence Day [June 12], I may go to Pagasa [Thitu Island, Spratlys] to raise the flag. We want to make a strong point that that is ours,” Duterte promised.
The announcement of a potential personal visit to the islands received a positive reception in Philippine media. “A visit to Pagasa will convey with impact the message of President Duterte about his looking after the needs of the most disadvantaged communities and the military contingent keeping watch over the threatened frontiers of the archipelago,” columnist Federico Pascual Jr. wrote in the Philippine Star. “With this one act, the President may nip the growing impression that he seems to be succumbing to China’s blandishments.”
The positive reception comes as little surprise given the public sentiment towards China in the Philippines. A poll released in late January found that 84 percent of Filipinos supported a confrontation with China over the South China Sea territories, particularly the Spratly and Paracel Islands. Another poll released this week, both by the firm Pulse Asia, found that Duterte’s approval ratings have fallen since December, though he still boasts an impressive 78 percent approval rating.
Duterte has hinted for some time that he has changed his opinion on the presence of China in Philippine territory in the region. In March, the president made a vague promise to “tell them [China] straight that this is ours” by ordering the military to build “structures” on uninhabited islands in the region.
“The President wants facilities built such as: barracks for the men, water (desalination) and sewage disposal systems, power generators (conventional and renewable), lighthouses, and shelters for fishermen,” Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana clarified.