The Philippines will upgrade existing facilities on its inhabited islands and reefs in the South China Sea and not occupy new territories, adhering to a 2002 informal code in the disputed waters, defense and military officials said on Friday.
A statement from Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s office on Thursday said he had ordered troops to occupy uninhabited islands and shoals that the Philippines claims in the disputed waterway, 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.
But defense and military officials have subsequently clarified the president’s comments.
“The president’s order was very crystal clear. Occupy only the existing areas that we claim,” a navy commander, privy to development plans in the South China Sea, told Reuters on Friday.
“The Philippines is not allowed to do that, occupy new territories in the Spratly, based on the 2002 agreement,” said the navy official.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, where about US$5 trillion worth of seaborne goods pass every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims.
The president’s comments were made after he was briefed by defense and military brass about South China Sea developments in Palawan, according to his communications office.
“What he really meant was the already-occupied areas,” military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla told reporters on Thursday.
Defense Minister Delfin Lorenzana said there were plans to only repair and upgrade facilities in the Spratly.
“The president wants facilities built such as barracks for the men, water and sewage disposal systems, power generators, light houses, and shelters for fishermen,” Lorenzana said.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, where about $5 trillion worth of seaborne goods pass every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Taiwan also have claims.
Meanwhile, a Chinese fighter plane has been spotted on a Chinese-held island in the South China Sea, the first such deployment seen this year, a US think tank reported.
The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI), part of Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the J-11 fighter was visible in a satellite image taken on March 29 of Woody Island in the Paracel island chain.
News of the deployment came as US President Donald Trump was holding his first meetings with China’s President Xi Jinping in Florida on Thursday and Friday at which he is expected to air US concerns about China’s pursuit of territory and militarization of outposts in the South China Sea.
“This isn’t a first, but it’s the first time in a year,” AMTI director Greg Poling said of the fighter deployment.
Referring to the single fighter plane visible in the image, he said: “There are likely more in the hangars nearby.”
The Chinese embassy in Washington was not immediately available for comment.
China has previously denied US charges that it is militarizing the South China Sea. In March, Premier Li Keqiang said defense equipment had been placed on islands in the disputed waterway to maintain “freedom of navigation”.
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(First posted at 8 a.m.; includes clarifications by military officials)