MANILA - President Duterte's plan to mark Independence Day at a Philippine-occupied island in the disputed South China Sea reflects the country's pursuit of an independent foreign policy, Malacañang said Friday.
In a statement, the Palace cited the significance of commemorating the country's 119th Independence Day on Pag-asa Island, part of the Kalayaan Island Group some 528 kms off Palawan.
The military has long maintained a detachment on the island, which has a runway, a school and a civilian community belonging to Kalayaan town.
"The President recently announced plans to improve and implement the Pag-asa Development Plan, which includes nine areas. This is part of his mandate to serve the best interests of the nation," said Presidential spokesperson Ernesto Abella.
"It will be significant that it will be the first time a President visits and commemorates independence day in this municipality. It will also be symbolic of our independent foreign policy," he added.
He said the government remains committed to "the development of these islands for the benefit of our citizens thereat."
Duterte had on Thursday announced plans to visit Pag-Asa Island on June 12 to raise the flag there. He also ordered the military to occupy other islands in the disputed waters that are within the country's EEZ.
Abella said the President will come with local officials if the trip pushes through.
"If he does push through, he will be accompanied by the governor, the three Palawan congressmen, and the leaders of the municipality of Kalayaan," he said.
Previously, military generals and Supreme Court justices have visited Pag-asa Island.
The Philippines contends that the island is part of the West Philippine Sea, the country's exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the South China Sea.
China is claiming nearly all of the territories in the disputed resource-rich waters. It has ignored an international arbitral ruling invalidating its nine-dash line claim over the waters, a landmark decision the United Nations issued based on legal action the Philippines launched in 2013.
Duterte's friendly stance towards China has signaled a thawing of long-frigid ties between Manila and Beijing. The two sides are set to sit down for talks in May.