MANILA (UPDATED) - The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on Friday said it would reinforce troops and improve facilities on islands in the South China Sea within the Philippines' exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in heed of President Rodrigo Duterte's directive.
AFP Chief of Staff General Eduardo Año said the military would have no problem carrying out the President's orders, saying the United Nations arbitration ruling on the dispute was favorable to the Philippines.
"That's an order from the President and I intend to carry that out. Atin naman yan (that's ours) per arbitration ruling so we don't see any problem," he said in a text message.
Duterte had on Thursday ordered the military to occupy all the islands it claims in the South China Sea.
The landmark July 2016 ruling invalidated China's nine-dash line claim over nearly all of the resource-rich South China Sea. While it clarified the status of territories within the disputed waters, it did not rule on the matter of sovereignty or ownership.
Año said the 8 islands within the Philippines' EEZ, an area locally called the West Philippine Sea, have been occupied by Philippine troops, including the Ayungin Shoal off Palawan.
"We have occupied a total of 8 islands and 1 shoal in West Philippine Sea. All others are occupied by China, Vietnam etc. Within our EEZ, may mga (there are) submerged lands or rocks that we may occupy, but we need to put up structures where our troops can stay," Año said.
"We will reinforce our troops and improve the structures and facilities there," he added.
Six claimants- the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Taiwan and China- are contesting parts of the resource-rich waters, the last seen with the most expansive assertion of ownership.
Beijing has shunned Manila's arbitral victory, reiterating indisputable sovereignty over almost all of the waters and stepping up militarization and reclamation activities in the South China Sea.
Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana last month said the President has ordered the repair of facilities on Pag-asa Island, a Philippine-occupied island in the South China Sea where the Chief Executive plans mark Independence Day.
The island is home to a military detachment and a civilian community.
In a statement, Assistant Secretary Charles Jose, the Department of Foreign Affairs spokesperson, said the President's order only aims to protect Filipinos on the island.
"The President is performing his mandate with respect to Philippine territory. The aim is to improve the living conditions, safety and personal security of Filipinos in those areas," Jose said.
He also reiterated Manila's commitment to improving ties with China and other allies.
"At the same time, we remain committed to improving our relations with China and other partners in the region," he said.
The Philippines and China are set to hold talks on the dispute in May.