AN AERIAL VIEW of the BRP Sierra Madre at the contested Second Thomas Shoal on March 9, 2023. — REUTERS

THE PHILIPPINES will develop islands it is occupying in the South China Sea, according to its military chief.

Among the islands that will be developed are Thitu and Nanshan islands, Armed Forces of the Philippines chief of staff Romeo S. Brawner, Jr. told reporters on Monday.

The Philippines would develop the islands to make them more habitable for troops, he added.

The plans come amid heightened tensions between the Philippines and China, both of which claim territory in the South China Sea and have traded accusations of aggressive behavior in the strategic waterway.

Apart from the Second Thomas Shoal, locally known as Ayungin, the Philippines occupies eight other features in the South China Sea and considers them part of its exclusive economic zone.

“We’d like to improve all the nine, especially the islands we are occupying,” Mr. Brawner said after attending a command conference led by Philippine President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. at the military headquarters near the capital.

The features include Thitu island, the biggest and most strategically important in the South China Sea. Known locally as Pag-asa, Thitu lies about 300 miles (480 km) west of the Philippine province of Palawan.

The military wants to bring a desalination machine for troops living aboard a warship that the Philippines deliberately grounded at Second Thomas Shoal in 1999 to assert its sovereignty claim, he said.

Besides the Philippines, Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam have competing claims of sovereignty in the South China Sea, a conduit for goods in excess of $3 trillion every year.

Also included in the military’s modernization plan is the acquisition of more ships, radars and aircraft as the Philippines shifts its focus to territorial from internal defense, Mr. Brawner said.

The Philippine Congress has earmarked P800 million to build a fishing port on Nanshan Island in the South China Sea to encourage civilian settlements, Makati Rep. Luis Jose Angel N. Campos, Jr. said on Sunday.

The port is separate from the P1.5 billion allotted for the expansion of an airport on Thitu Island, the lawmaker, who is vice chairman of the House of Representatives committee on appropriations, said in a statement.

“The shelter port and the airport expansion projects give substance to Speaker Martin Romualdez’s pledge to develop the Kalayaan Island Group in a bid to encourage civilian settlements there,” he added.

Mr. Campos said the port could be used by Filipino fishermen as a shelter amid increasing tensions with China.

Funding for the Nanshan shelter port is included in the Transportation department’s 2024 maritime transportation infrastructure program.

The Philippines has been unable to enforce a United Nations-backed arbitration court ruling in 2016 that voided China’s claim to more than 80% of the South China Sea and has since filed hundreds of protests over what it calls encroachment and harassment by China’s coast guard and its vast fishing fleet.

China reclaimed about 3,200 acres (1,295 hectares) of land in the South China Sea from 2013 to 2016, according to US think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Philippine Foreign Affairs department has urged China to stop what it called the “militarization of the South China Sea.”

In December, Senate President Juan Miguel F. Zubiri said an additional P10.47 billion had been earmarked to upgrade the Philippines’ defense capacity and strengthen its presence in the South China Sea.

Nanshan Island, which the Philippines calls Lawak, is the eighth-largest natural island in the Spratly Islands, and the fourth-largest of the Philippine-occupied islands. It has an area of 7.93 hectares and is 158 kilometers east of Thitu Island, which the Philippines calls Pag-asa.

About 200 Filipinos live on Pag-asa Island, where the government set up a municipality under Palawan province in 1978. — Reuters