Not many eyebrows were raised when President Rodrigo Duterte ordered the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to occupy islands that the Philippines claim it owns on the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). Many may even consider that this is the natural progression of events leading to the assertion that the Philippines have every right to occupy all those lands within its territory in the exercise of its jurisdiction over them particularly those in the Spratly islands.
Wikipedia will tell us that while the Philippines lays claim to 52 features in the Spratly Island group it was only able to occupy 7 islands and 2 reefs. This includes Pagasa Island, West York or Likas Island, Parola or Northeast Cay, Lawak or Nanshan Island, Kota or Loaita Island, Patag or flat island, Panata or Lankiam cay, Rizal or Commodore reef, Balagtas or Irving reef and Ayungin or Second Thomas reef. Other islands, reefs or cays which are features of the Spratly Island group and which is also being claimed by the Philippines is either claimed or already occupied by other countries such as China, Malaysia, Taiwan or Vietnam.
Now if the directive of the President is to be followed to the letter then the military will have to occupy all those islands, cays, reefs or coves that the Philippines claim as its own in the Spratly Island group, all 52 features.
This will be certainly easier said than done given that many of the 250 islands, atolls, cays, shoals, reefs and sandbars found in the West Philippine Sea are ordinarily under water during high tide while others are permanently submerged. It will be a herculean task for the Philippine government to devote its resources toward putting up permanent structures in the islands it has claimed and have it occupied by its people due to the very nature of these features of the Spratly Island group.
President Duterte offered a simple explanation for his order to the military to occupy these islands in the Western Philippine Sea and that is to make a physical manifestation of the country’s jurisdiction over these places and to allegedly maintain the so called “Geopolitical Balance and Harmony” in that area.
The President even assured China that the AFP will not be bringing any offensive weapons when they occupy these islands, not a single gun.
Now the President may have been simply trying to placate China over the latter’s concern in the order for the AFP to occupy certain islands in the West Philippine Sea but a deeper understanding may be needed in order to fully evaluate the President’s directive and how it really affects the geopolitical situation in that part of the world.
For one, the President may have already been alarmed about reports that missile batteries have been installed by China in some of the reefs and islands it has claimed and occupied. For another, and given the still wanting full operational military capability of the AFP, the President may have simply wanted to place warm bodies in those islands it has claimed so that in the event of any further intrusion or expansion by China or some other nation over these islands in the West Philippine Sea the country will not be deprived of those islands, cays and reefs which it has already claimed as its own.
Moreover and perhaps this is the much deeper motive for the order by the President, if the military personnel that will be deployed to occupy and build structures in these islands claimed by the Philippines are suddenly placed in grave danger from the aggressive posturing of China then the President will have the opportunity to seek the aid of the United States in defending these islands and reefs. In this light the order of the President by the military to occupy these islands may have just been a ploy to force China into reconsidering its position in the West Philippine Sea and if it opts to protest or scare away those AFP personnel directed to occupy these islands claimed by the Philippines then it may just give the US the justification to further expand its military presence in the SouthEast Asia, not that it hasn’t been doing so ever since it began its campaign to exert its influence in this part of the world.