MANILA, Philippines — The Philippine government on Saturday walked back comments by President Rodrigo Duterte ordering the armed forces to occupy uninhabited islands in the disputed South China Sea after the comments caused tensions to spike with China.
For one thing, the Philippines already occupies nine islands and reefs in the disputed chain, the Spratlys, and has troops stationed on a dilapidated World War II-era ship it stranded on one of the contested shoals.
Analysts and some officials were also perplexed by the order, since it came as ties between the two nations were on the mend a year after a United Nations-backed tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines in the sea dispute.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who was with Duterte when he made the statements at a military camp Thursday, sought to allay fears that the president was abandoning his pro-China stance.
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“There is no cause for concern,” Lorenzana said.
“The islands have been in our possession since the 1980s, when former President Marcos declared it as ours.”
Lorenzana sought to clarify that Duterte meant the military should construct living accommodations in the islands, including a water and sewage system, and a lighthouse and electricity, so that they could serve as sanctuaries for fishermen.
Of the islands controlled by the Philippines, the biggest, Pag-asa, also known as Thitu, is considered an island municipality. It is occupied by troops and governed by an elected official under the province of Palawan, west of Manila.
But it is part of the Spratly Islands, an archipelago of about 14 islets and dozens of reefs and shoals scattered near the middle of the South China Sea. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and the Philippines have overlapping claims in the archipelago.
Security experts have long warned that the dispute is a flashpoint of conflict in the region.
Pag-asa is one of nine occupied islands among the roughly 50 islands and reefs that the Philippines claims in the Spratlys. While all the countries with claims have agreed not to make any provocative moves, there is no binding “code of conduct” to govern their actions.
China recently moved to advance its own claims in the sea by building shoals into artificial islands and building military and other facilities on them.
A spokeswoman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, Hua Chunying, said Beijing had been worried about Duterte’s statement and expressed hope that Manila would continue to “properly manage maritime disputes with China.”
The two sides are to meet in May in a bid to hammer out a “bilateral” arrangement to manage conflicting claims.
A Philippine presidential spokesman, Ernesto Abella, assured the Chinese side that Duterte had not changed tack.
“The Philippines assures all claimant countries that we remain committed to improving and enhancing our relations with our neighbors and partners in the region,” Abella said. “At the same time, it is important that the living conditions, safety, and personal security of Filipinos in Philippine territory be assured.”
Duterte’s position on the matter “is clear and has nothing to do with politics,” he added.
“His instructions cover existing Philippine facilities and Philippine territory.”
Last week, Duterte ordered troops to occupy South China Sea islands that remained vacant. He also said he might go to Pag-asa island to plant a Philippine flag there on June 12, the country’s Independence Day.
But the order puzzled observers. Duterte had previously noted that China and the Philippines could share resources in the disputed region rather than fight over it.
A former national security adviser, Roilo Golez, who remains active in anti-China political circles, said the president could merely be posturing.