The Philippines' military said Friday that it plans to upgrade and improve facilities on islands it already occupies in the disputed South China Sea, not embark on a new land grab.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said Thursday that he had ordered the armed forces to "occupy all" remote reefs claimed by Manila, in a move that could provoke rival claimants including Beijing.
The firebrand leader said he wanted "nine or 10" islands occupied and fortified, but did not make clear whether he was referring to the nine islands already held by the army, or to some of the 40-odd other Spratly features also claimed by Manila.
"The context with which we take the order is to improve on our already occupied islands, islets and features," military spokesman Colonel Edgard Arevalo told AFP.
The defence department said the plan was to add military barracks, water desalination systems, power generators, light houses, and shelters for fishermen to the features that the Philippines currently occupy.
"The president recently announced plans to improve, and implement the Pag-asa development plan which includes nine areas," Duterte spokesman Ernesto Abella said, referring Pag-asa municipality, the Philippines' political subdivision for the Spratly islands that it claims.
"This is part of his mandate to serve the best interests of the nation," he added.
Military spokesman Brigadier-General Restituto Padilla said he did not think Duterte's order required the military to occupy further outcrops.
All other major outcrops inside the section of the Spratlys claimed by Manila are already occupied by troops from other claimant countries, Filipino maritime law expert Jay Batongbacal told AFP Friday.
Only a few "reefs and shoals" do not currently have soldiers on them, he said, adding that the Philippine government would likely back away from Duterte's explosive original proposal.
China claims most of the sea and in recent years has been building up disputed reefs into artificial islands that can house military facilities, further raising tensions.
Duterte's announcement was a sharp departure from his prior efforts to improve Manila's relations with Beijing by adopting a non-confrontational approach over their competing claims in the strategically vital waters.
This has sparked domestic criticism that Duterte was not defending Philippine territory in the face of Chinese assertiveness.