A Philippine flag flutters from BRP Sierra Madre, a dilapidated navy ship that has been aground since 1999 and is now a Philippine military detachment on the disputed Second Thomas Shoal, part of the Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea. Photo: Reuters/Erik De Castro

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said on Thursday he has ordered troops to deploy on unoccupied South China Sea islands adding that he may visit a Philippine-controlled island to raise the national flag.

Duterte’s plan is unlikely to sit well with China, which lays claim to almost all the South China Sea, despite a fast-warming relationship between the two sides in recent months.

“I have ordered the armed forces to occupy all,” Duterte said.

“At least, let us get what is ours now and make a strong point there that it is ours,” he said, adding Manila was claiming “nine or 10” Spratly islands, reefs and cays.

Duterte also said he could visit Thitu island on June 12 and mark the nation’s Independence Day by personally raising the Philippine flag there.

The defence department later said that nine outcrops “are already in our possession” and occupied by marines, including Thitu island where the Philippine military maintains an airstrip.

Its statement suggested that Duterte’s plan was to beef up contingents on the reefs.

“The president wants facilities built such as barracks for the men, water (desalination) and sewage disposal systems, power generators, light houses, and shelters for fishermen,” the defence department said.

Duterte’s comments, made to reporters at a military base on Palawan island, near the disputed waters, came two days after Manila’s acting foreign minister said China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations had made progress on a framework for a code of conduct in the South China Sea.

In October, Duterte announced his “separation” from the United States, declaring he had realigned with China as the two agreed to resolve their South China Sea dispute through talks.

His efforts to engage China, months after a tribunal in the Hague ruled that Beijing did not have historic rights to the South China Sea, marks an astonishing reversal in foreign policy since he took office on June 30.

However, Duterte appeared to alter his tone on Thursday when he said he would visit the island of Thitu, the largest of the Philippine-controlled Spratly Islands, and build a barracks for servicemen operating in the area.

“In the coming Independence Day, I may go to Pagasa island to raise the flag there,” Duterte told reporters, using the local name for Thitu.

The Philippines marks 119th year of independence from more than three centuries of Spanish rule on June 12.

Thitu is close to Subi Reef, one of seven man-made islands in the Spratlys that China is accused of militarising with surface-to-air missiles, airstrips and military equipment and infrastructure.

After China occupied neighboring Mischief Reef in the mid-1990s, the Philippines marooned a decrepit navy vessel atop nearby Second Thomas Shoal to assert Manila’s territorial claim and has kept the rusting boat manned ever since.

An official at the Chinese embassy in Manila seemed surprised when asked by Agence France-Presse to comment on Duterte’s declaration, but referred questions on the matter to the Chinese foreign ministry in Beijing.

The Philippines under Duterte’s predecessor Benigno Aquino actively challenged China’s claim to control most of the South China Sea including taking the claim to a UN-backed tribunal, which ruled in its favour last year.

But the controversial Duterte, who took office last year on a promises to kill thousands of people in a drug war, reversed that policy as he sought billions of dollars worth of investments and grants from Beijing.

The two countries are scheduled to hold talks in China in May to tackle issues related to the sea row.

Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan have also sparred with Beijing over territory in the disputed waterway.

US President Donald Trump’s administration has so far taken a tough stance on China’s claims in the South China Sea, insisting it will defend international interests there.

Trump is set to sit down with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping later in the day to discuss a range of issues which will likely include tensions in the South China Sea.

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