The head of the Philippine military on Monday visited a coral-fringed island his country occupies in the South China Sea, a move that could stoke already heightened tensions between Manila and Beijing in disputed waters claimed by both countries.
During the visit, Philippine Armed Forces Lieutenant General Cirilito Sobejana commended service members for the role they played in protecting the island’s residents and “guarding the country’s territories” in the strategic waterway.
The visit comes after diplomatic protests made by the Philippines in the past few months over what it says is the illegal presence of hundreds of “Chinese maritime militia” vessels inside its exclusive economic zone and near its occupied islands.
Chinese diplomats have said that the boats were sheltering from rough seas and no militia were aboard.
Information on Sobejana’s trip to Thitu Island (Jhongye Island, 中業島), known in the Philippines as Pagasa, were only made public by Agence France-Presse yesterday.
Thitu is the biggest of the nine reefs, shoals and islands the Philippines occupies in the Spratly Islands (Nansha Islands, 南沙群島), and is home to a small number of military personnel and civilians.
The troops on the island “are in very high spirit, their level of moral is high especially after our visit,” Sobejana told reporters on Tuesday evening, adding that he also wanted to inspect the island to oversee plans to convert it into a logistics hub to make it easier for naval assets conducting patrols to refuel.
The Chinese embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Taiwan, Brunei, China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam have competing claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea, a conduit for goods in excess of US$3 trillion every year.
The foreign ministers of China and Southeast Asian countries during a meeting on Monday agreed to exercise restraint in the South China Sea and avoid actions that could escalate tensions.
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