On Pag-asa visit, Estrada pledges push for AFP budget hike

(PHILSTAR) PAG-ASA ISLAND, Kalayaan — Sen. Jinggoy Estrada committed Thursday to push for an increase in the budget of the Armed Forces of the Philippines as it requested additional equipment to detect and monitor foreign incursions into the country.

“I’ve always been supportive of their needs,” Estrada told reporters here in Pag-asa Island. “Whatever they need … I’ll try to talk with my fellow senators to increase the budget for the AFP.” The military has more than P110 billion in the 2023 national budget, and around P65 billion in the AFP modernization program this year.

Estrada, the chairperson of the Senate defense panel, visited Pag-asa, which is part of the Kalayaan municipality of Palawan to check on troops deployed there and on residents of the island town.

In the AFP’s wishlist is a new radar that can detect foreign vessels in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, which spans 200 nautical miles from the coastline.

“Right now, we have limited capability,” AFP chief-of-staff Andres Centino said.

Meanwhile, the Philippine Air Force is proposing P657.54 million worth of projects, including a wastewater treatment facility and a 300-meter extension of the runway on Pag-asa Island.

The PAF is currently improving its facilities on Balabac Island in Palawan, which Centino described to be a “very strategic location” as it is near to an international sea lane.

“It is important that we are able to detect or identify who is coming in within our territorial waters,” he said.

‘They might invade us’

Foreign vessels and aircrafts still come close to Pag-asa Island, which is located in the tense South China Sea.

Lt. Erwin Fermo of Joint Task Unit Pag-asa said in a briefing that in a week an average of one Chinese Coast Guard vessel, four or five Chinese fishing vessels, one to two Vietnamese ships and one foreign aircraft come close to the island.

The AFP’s protocol is to issue a radio challenge to these foreign vessels and aircrafts when they come within 12 nautical miles of the coastline.

But even then, troops admitted that sometimes their radio challenges go unanswered or do not make these vessels and aircraft to go away.

Philippine Navy Commodore Alan Javier said that in those cases, they document the incidents and report them to the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea.

Still, the presence of foreign vessels — in particular those from China — so close to Pag-asa keeps some schoolchildren here anxious.

“We’re afraid they might invade us,” 10-year-old Irish Mendoza told reporters in Filipino.

Some of the much older residents, however, do not share these concerns.

“We’re not afraid of them,” construction worker Roland Palay told Philstar.com. “They don’t come near us since they know the boundary of Pag-asa.”

“Unless, of course, you go near Mischief Reef. They would really come after you,” he said referring to the atoll that Manila calls Panganiban Reef.