Controversial president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, issued an order to his nation’s military on Thursday to occupy uninhabited islands in the South China Sea in an effort to assert Philippine sovereignty.

Duterte made waves in October when he announced a policy shift away from the nation’s long-time ally, the United States, and toward the U.S.’s political and economic opponent, China, sayinmilig, “America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow.”

Now, it would seem Duterte may be regretting that decision, directing his troops to prepare contested islands his nation lays claim to for permanent habitation – a move which will likely draw the ire of Chinese leaders.

“The unoccupied, which are ours, let’s live on it,” Duterte told reporters during a visit to a military base in Palawan, not far from the disputed waters the islands are in.

“It looks like everyone is making a grab for the islands there. So we better live on those that are still unoccupied. What’s ours now, we claim it and make a strong point from there.”

China lays claim to the vast majority of the South China Sea, which contains not only significant natural resources but also harbors a great deal of international trade.  Other nations laying contested claims include Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Vietnam – with the powerful United States Navy frequently patrolling the waters in hopes of maintaining the peace, or perhaps in hopes of pressuring their Chinese opponents.

China has ramped up their efforts to assert control over the waterway by holding military exercises in the area and even going so far as to build sand bars up into full islands, complete with weapon systems and runways for military aircraft.  The United States has made its feelings on these artificial islands clear, aligning their development with the Russian annexation of Crimea.

“Building islands and then putting military assets on those islands is akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea. Its taking of territory that others lay claim to,” Rex Tillerson, the American Secretary of State, said during his confirmation hearings earlier this year.

Less than a month ago, Duterte made statements that seem to contradict his new stance – describing the act of challenging China’s fortifications on man-made islands in the South China Sea as “pointless.”

“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.

Duterte’s change of mind was punctuated by adding that he may visit the uninhabited Philippine-controlled island of Thitu on June 12th in order to raise the country’s flag over it for their Independence Day celebration.  He followed that statement up with suggestions to build military barracks there for service members who would remain in the region.

When the Philippine president announced a political split with the United States last year, he and his administration claimed they would be able to resolve disputes with China themselves, peacefully ending the tensions boiling up from the depths of the waterway between the Asian states.  Less than six months later, it would seem that plan has fallen through.

President Trump is expecting to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Thursday at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.  While the elements of talks between the two world leaders have not been announced by the White House, it stands to reason that the South China Sea may be among the first issues on the table.


Image courtesy of Reuters