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Philippines’ Duterte orders troops to disputed South China Sea in possible new rift with Beijing

In this Tuesday, April 4, 2017, file photo, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures while addressing army troopers during the 120th anniversary celebration of the Philippine Army at Fort Bonifacio in suburban Taguig city, east of Manila, Philippines. (Bullit Marquez / Associated Press)
In this Tuesday, April 4, 2017, file photo, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte gestures while addressing army troopers during the 120th anniversary celebration of the Philippine Army at Fort Bonifacio in suburban Taguig city, east of Manila, Philippines. (Bullit Marquez / Associated Press)
By Emily Rauhala Washington Post

BEIJING – The Philippine president appeared to revive his quarrels with China on Thursday, ordering his troops to occupy islands and reefs in the disputed South China Sea – and saying he may even stop by for a visit.

Rodrigo Duterte said the military should build structures on all of the Philippine-held islands, reefs and shoals in the contested Spratly Islands – not far from seven man-made Chinese islands in the area.

China’s construction of the islands is part of its claims of territorial sovereignty over nearly the entire South China Sea, an important route for sea trade across Southeast Asia. Neighboring nations strongly oppose Beijing’s moves and worry that the runways and docks on the artificial islands could eventually have a military use.

Since winning the presidency last summer, the bombastic Duterte has struck a surprisingly conciliatory tone with Beijing, downplaying a landmark ruling that rejected Chinese maritime claims and signaling that he was willing to work with Beijing in return for Chinese investment.

It is not clear whether Duterte was making a policy statement or another of his high-stakes quips, which have included mocking figures such as then-President Barack Obama and Pope Francis.

It could suggest, however, that Duterte is returning to his confrontational stance with China after powerful domestic critics questioned his light-touch approach toward Beijing.

Duterte also mentioned that he would like plant a flag on one island for Philippine Independence Day on June 12.

“It looks like everybody is making a grab for the islands there, so we better live on those that are still vacant,” he said.

“At least, let us get what is ours now and make a strong point there that it is ours,” he added.

When Duterte was campaigning for president, he once quipped that he would “ride a Jet Ski” to the disputed Spratly Islands to plant a flag. Later, he mocked the press for believing him.

Whether he is serious or not, the remarks are sure to unnerve Beijing, which claims the Spratlys and other disputed South China Sea islands and has been working diligently to get Duterte on its side.

Thursdays’ comments are strikingly at odds with what the president and members of his cabinet have been saying.

Just two days ago, acting foreign secretary Enrique Manalo said the Philippines, China and neighboring countries were making progress on a new code of conduct for the South China Sea.

When Duterte visited Beijing last fall, he secured loans and deals worth billions of dollars. In a speech in the Chinese capital, he derided Americans, called for a “separation” from the United States and said he hoped to align himself with China’s “ideological flow.”

Though Duterte enjoys considerable popular support, much of the military and political elite is wary of working with China – they don’t much like its ideology, or its maritime claims.

When Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana recently raised concerns about Chinese ships surveying an area off the Philippine coast known as Benham Rise, Duterte brushed the critique aside – and was later forced to backtrack.

Duterte’s office has since suggested changing the name from “Benham Rise” to “Philippine Rise” or “Philippine Ridge” in an apparent nod to patriotic sentiment.

Richard Javad Heydarian, an assistant professor of political science at Manila’s De La Salle University, said Thursday’s comments were meant to calm nerves among the ranks of the defense establishment.

“He definitely felt the heat so is now scrambling to rebuild his patriotic credentials,” Heydarian said.

“There are no islands left to occupy, and we filed and won a case against China for occupying reefs,” said Jay L. Batongbacal, director of the University of the Philippines’ Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea.

“He’s playing to the galleries,” he said.

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