During Monday’s visit, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Cirilito Sobejana commended the soldiers for the role they played in protecting the island’s residents and “guarding the country’s territories” in the strategic waterway. The visit comes after recent diplomatic protests made by the Philippines over what it says is the illegal presence of hundreds of “Chinese maritime militia” vessels inside its exclusive economic zone and near its occupied islands in the South China Sea. Chinese diplomats have said the boats were just sheltering from rough seas and no militia were aboard.
Sobejana’s trip to Thitu, known to Filipinos as Pagasa, happened on Monday, but information was only made public by the AFP on Wednesday.
Thitu is the biggest of the nine reefs, shoals and islands the Philippines occupies in the Spratly archipelago, and is home to a small number of military personnel and civilians.
Sobejana told reporters: “The troops are in very high spirit, their level of moral is high especially after our visit.”
He added that he also wanted to inspect the island to oversee plans to convert it into a logistics hub to make it easier for naval assets conducting patrols to refuel.
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The Chinese Embassy in Manila did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
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.
The foreign ministers of Southeast Asia and China agreed during a meeting on Monday to exercise restraint in the South China Sea and avoid actions that could escalate tensions.
It comes as Malaysia has insisted China explains an “intrusion” by 16 air force planes into its airspace, after the Southeast Asian country’s military detected “suspicious” activity over the South China Sea.
Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said Malaysia will issue a note of diplomatic protest and ask China’s ambassador to Malaysia to explain the “breach of the Malaysian airspace and sovereignty”.
Mr Hishammuddin said in a statement: “Malaysia’s stand is clear – having friendly diplomatic relations with any countries does not mean that we will compromise on our national security.”
China’s embassy earlier said the planes conducted routine flight training and “strictly abided by” international law without violating the airspace of other countries.
A spokesperson added: “China and Malaysia are friendly neighbours, and China is willing to continue bilateral friendly consultations with Malaysia to jointly maintain regional peace and stability.”