By Genalyn D. Kabiling
Doha, Qatar — The Philippines must “act fast” in occupying its islands in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) before it loses them to other claimants, President Duterte said last Saturday in his talk at a Philippine-Qatar business forum here.
“With the movement of people there occupying the lands, I ordered my military to occupy the remaining 10 islands which are not inhabited, place our flag there, put some structures,” Duterte said in his remarks.
“I claim these islands as property of the Philippines. It’s because everybody is grabbing every land there in the South China Sea so if we do not act fast, we will end up with nothing,” he added.
The West Philippine Sea, as declared in an exective order issued by then President Benigno S. Aquino III in 2012, includes that part of the South China Sea covered by the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone 300 miles from Philippine land. It includes Kalayaan islands west of Palawan as well as Scarborough Shoal west of Zambales.
The President had earlier ordered government troops to occupy and fortify the islands in the Kalayaan group of islands. After China expressed concern over the move, Duterte assured that no weapon system will be installed on the islands. “We are just there to claim the islands for us because that is really ours,” he said.
The President, meantime, warned other nations against intruding into Benham Rise east of Luzon. The United Nations in 2008 approved the Philippines’ claim that it has sovereign rights to Benham Rise as part of its continental shelf.
President Duterte said he is renaming Benham Rise to “Philippine Ridge.”
The undersea plateau was named after American geologist Andrew Benham who surveyed the area in 1933.
Benham Rise recently figured in the news when Philippine officials said Chinese ships were spotted by sattellte crisscrossing the area from July to December last year. China, however, has assured Duterte that it would not claim Benham Rise.