South China Sea: Philippines' Duterte sends troops to unoccupied islands

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte points to photographers during an awarding ceremony for outstanding government workers, at the Malacanang Palace in Manila. Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said "everyone is making a grab" for the South China Sea

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has ordered troops to occupy uninhabited islands and reefs in the disputed South China Sea.

"The unoccupied, which are ours, let's live on it," Mr Duterte told reporters during a visit to a military base in Palawan.

The move is expected to anger China, which claims several contested shoals, islets and reefs in the territory.

China has been constructing artificial islands in the area for years.

While the Philippines occupies nine features in the South China Sea, including a World War Two-era transport ship, Beijing claims almost all of the territory. It is unlikely to welcome an increased military presence from the Philippines.

Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan also claim territory in the strategic area.

Speaking on Thursday, Mr Duterte said: "It looks like everyone is making a grab for the islands there. So we better live on those that are still unoccupied."

The deployment is a change of tack for President Duterte, who said last month that it was pointless trying to challenge China's fortification of its man-made islands.

"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 then.

Raising the flag

On Thursday, the 72-year-old added that he might visit a Philippine-controlled island, Thitu, to raise the national flag there on 12 June, the country's Independence Day.

He then proposed building a barracks for servicemen operating in the area.

The president's stance comes despite a push for warmer relations between Manila and Beijing in recent months.

In October, Mr Duterte had announced his "separation" from the US, declaring that he had realigned the Philippines with China, and would resolve their South China Sea dispute through talks.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption China is one of a number of countries with claims in the disputed waters

The former mayor of Davao city, who is known for his outspoken sound bites, joked before his election that he would jet ski to a man-made Chinese island to reinforce Manila's claim.

At present, China controls several reefs in the South China Sea, among them Scarborough Shoal, which it seized from Manila in 2012.

The reef lies just 230 kilometres (143 miles) from the main Philippine island of Luzon.

China and the Philippines are scheduled to hold talks in May to address tensions over the much-debated waters.

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