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Background Briefing:

Thayer Consultancy
ABN # 65 648 097 123 Philippines: Military to Occupy
Unoccupied Islands in South
China Sea
Carlyle A. Thayer
April 7, 2017
[client name deleted]
Can you provide an assessment of the implications of President Dutertes order on
April 6th for the Armed Forces of the Philippines to occupy up to ten islands in the
South China Sea?
ASSESSMENT: President Rodrigo Duterte's order that he will send troops to occupy
Philippines' claimed islands in the South China Sea marks a u-turn from his policy of
playing down maritime disputes with China when he first came to office last year. It is
quite clear that China's continued consolidation of control over and militarization of
islands in the Sprtalys has unnerved Filipino defence officials and now the president. After
the Arbitral Tribunal award last July, China has further fortified its three main artificial
islands (Fiery Cross, Johnson South and Subi reefs) each hosting 3 kilometer airfields, by
constructing fortified hangars for military jet aircraft, installing close in weapons systems
and anti-aircraft guns. China also has built structures that can house surface-to-air missiles
on all of its seven occupied features. Manila was spooked by reports, later denied by
Beijing, that local authorities in Sanya city on Woody Island in the Paracels were about to
install environmental monitoring instruments on Scarborough Shoal. Most recently,
concerns were also raised when a Chinese oceanographic plied the waters in Benham Rise
off the Philippines' east coast.
China, which claims "indisputable sovereignty" over all the islands within its nine-dotted
line claims to the South China Sea, will likely issue a demarche and issue a public
statement critical of Duterte's order.
If the Philippine armed forces move to occupy presently unoccupied features they will be
in violation of the 2002 Declaration on Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea which
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call for self-restraint in "occupying presently unoccupied" features. Even more serious,
China is likely to respond. Chinese officials have been quoted as stating, "if you do one
,we will do one and a half; if you do two, we will do two and a half."
If the Philippines does occupy up to ten presently unoccupied islands and build permanent
facilities such as barracks and support facilities, this will create serious logistic problems
and offer China the opportunity to interfere with resupply efforts by stationing Coast
Guard vessels in the waters near these islands. Such actions would strain the Philippines'
capacity to sustain a presence on these islands as well as to respond to larger and better
armed Chinese Coast Guard ships.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, Philippines: Military to Occupy Unoccupied


Islands in South China Sea, Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, April 7, 2017. All
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Thayer Consultancy provides political analysis of current regional security issues and
other research support to selected clients. Thayer Consultancy was officially
registered as a small business in Australia in 2002.