Duterte plans to visit Pag-asa Island, rename Benham Rise

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, April 6) — President Rodrigo Duterte on Thursday made pitches to assert the country's sovereign rights in two contested bodies of water - the West Philippine Sea and Benham Rise.

The President said he plans to visit Pag-asa Island to raise the Philippine flag there on June 12, Independence Day.

"I may go to Pag-asa Island to raise the flag there," Duterte told reporters on the sidelines of his visit to the headquarters of the military's Western Command (Wescom).

The Wescom is in charge of patrolling the West Philippine Sea, which includes Pag-asa Island, one of the biggest islands in the disputed Spratlys.

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Duterte also said he had ordered the Armed Forces to "occupy" the nine islands in the the Kalayaan group of islands in the Spratlys, and build infrastructure there.

"We tried to be friends with everybody but we have to maintain our jurisdiction now, at least the areas under our control. And I have ordered the Armed Forces to occupy all these so many islands, I think nine or 10 — put structures and the Philippine flag," Duterte said.

"The development there has my full support. Gagastos ako sa fortification diyan (I will shell out money for the fortification there)," he added.

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Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana clarified in a statement that these islands have been "in our possession since long ago," stressing that government troops have been deployed to each of the islands.

He explained that the President wants to build barracks for the soldiers, sewage disposal systems, power generators, light houses, and shelters for the fishermen.

During the presidential campaign, Duterte  said he would ride a jet ski to the Spratly Islands to raise the Philippine flag and affirm the country's rights over the disputed reefs.  After drawing flak for failing to do so, Duterte said the statement was just a hyperbole to stress that the Philippines is not giving up any of its territory.

China claims ownership of almost the entire South China Sea. This includes parts of the Philippines' exclusive economic zone which former President Benigno Aquino III, in an administrative order, named the West Philippine Sea.

'Philippine Ridge'

Duterte also said Thursday he wants to "officially claim" Benham Rise and change its name to "Philippine Ridge."

"I want to include the Benham Rise on the right side of the Philippines in the Pacific. I will officially claim it as ours and rename it. Not Benham Rise. I'll call it the Philippine Ridge," he said.

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This comes after the government voiced concern over the presence of a Chinese vessel in Benham, a resource-rich undersea plateau off the coast of Aurora province. The United Nations has ruled the area to be part of the Philippines' extended continental shelf where the country has sole rights to the resources.

China has admitted its ship was in an area east of the country but only on innocent passage, saying it recognizes the country's sovereign rights over Benham Rise.

Duterte has repeatedly said the government will pursue diplomatic talks with China over territorial disputes, stressing that the country cannot afford to go to war against the Asian giant.

CNN Philippines' Ina Andolong contributed to this report.