MANILA — President Rodrigo Duterte has stepped up his defense of the Philippines’ purported sovereignty over disputed islands in the South China Sea, after being barraged by criticism for being “soft” against Beijing.
The Philippines will build structures on the Spratly islands, Duterte told reporters at a military facility on the island of Palawan, not far from the contested territories. The president has also said that he could even personally raise the country’s flag on Thitu Island — the largest of the Spratly chain over which Manila has effective control — on June 12, Philippine Independence Day.
The Philippines hass islands and atolls in the Spratlys, and operates the military there, observes Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who adds that hundreds of Filipinos live on Thitu Island. Duterte wants to build huts, water treatment facilities and power plants, as well as lighthouses and shelters for fishermen in the disputed territories, Lorenzana says.
China and the Philippines are also wrangling over control of the Scarborough Shoal, located west of the island of Luzon.
Duterte had been rather muted on the ongoing dispute, as he has prioritized strengthening economic relations with China. But this latest pivot is certain to further provoke Beijing.
The Filipino leader has been disparaged for his “faint-hearted” stance against China. In March, Duterte said he could not stop Beijing from building facilities on a disputed shoal. This was denounced by Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonio Carpio, who said the military should protect the Philippines’ territorial waters under the president’s command.
A lawmaker has filed a complaint to impeach Duterte, accusing him of failing to assert the Philippines’ sovereignty over the contested territory. Dissatisfaction is also said to be spreading within the military.
Duterte said during his election campaign that he would plant a Philippines flag at the Scarborough Shoal, only to later backtrack, saying he was only exaggerating. Whether he will walk the walk this time around is unclear.