Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte told reporters Thursday he ordered troops to occupy disputed territory in the South China Sea. File Photo by Mark R. Cristino/EPA
April 6 (UPI) -- Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered troops Thursday to occupy islands that are also claimed by China in the disputed South China Sea.
During a visit to military headquarters on Palawan Island, the leader told reporters he might personally raise the Philippine flag on Pag-asa Island on June 12, which is the country's Independence Day.
"We tried to be friends with everybody but we have to maintain our jurisdiction now, at least the areas under our control," he said. "And I have ordered the armed forces to occupy all – these so many islands, I think nine or 10 – build structures and place the Philippine flag."
But China also claims to have rights over about 90 percent of the South China Sea in which 80 percent of world trade goes through. Other countries with claims in the area are Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan.
China controls Scarborough Shoal, which it seized from Manila in 2012. That reef is 143 miles from the main Philippine island of Luzon. China has been building shoals into artificial islands, adding airfields, ports and weapons systems.
Last year, an arbitral tribunal in The Hague backed the Philippines and invalidated China's claim. But China said it does not recognize the ruling.
That was before Duterte became president last year in June.
Duterte has sought a warmer relationship with China.
During a visit to Beijing in October with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Duterte said: "America has lost now. I've realigned myself in your ideological flow."
Afterward, Beijing agreed to allow Philippines fishing ships access to China-controlled territory.
And on March 23, he said he didn't want to challenge China.
"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 at the time.
His comments Thursday were a marked departure from his previous position.
"Even those, those vacant [islands] that are considered ours, let's live there," Duterte said.
"It's like we're all competing to take these islands. And what's ours now at least, let's take it and make a strong point there that this is ours."
Duterte wants to repair the runway on Pag-asa, which is 91 acres and the second largest of the Spratly Islands.
"We have to fortify," he said. "I must build bunkers there or houses and make provisions for habitation."