P100-million funding sought for PH Ayungin buildup

(INQUIRER) MANILA, Philippines — Sen. Francis Escudero’s proposal on Tuesday to set aside P100 million in the 2024 national budget for the construction of permanent structures in Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea drew support from his colleagues and the chief of the Philippine Navy.

PRACTICALLY UNINHABITABLE | The decrepit BRP Sierra Madre, seen here being boarded by Philippine Navy men, may be in its last days, says Sen. Francis Escudero. He’s proposing the construction of a pier and lodging structures for Filipino soldiers stationed there, as well as for fishermen in distress. Photo taken on June 22, 2022. (Photo by MARIANNE BERMUDEZ / Philippine Daily Inquirer)

The structures, according to the senator, could serve as permanent lodging for soldiers stationed at the rusty BRP Sierra Madre, a warship intentionally grounded in the shoal in 1999 as a Philippine military outpost and now at the center of fresh tensions between Manila and Beijing.

“I will propose the allocation of P100 million to fund the construction of a pier and lodging structures for our soldiers assigned in the area, and for our fishermen who might seek temporary refuge in times of bad weather,” Escudero said.

He said the facilities could also shelter fisherfolk of any nationality who might be caught in bad weather in the high seas.

“It will welcome fishermen in distress with warm accommodations and not with a blast of the water cannon. It is there to help and not to harass,” he said, alluding to the Aug. 5 incident when China Coast Guard ships fired water cannons at Philippine vessels on a resupply mission to BRP Sierra Madre.

‘Soon lost to sea’

Since that incident, the Philippines and China had traded barbs over control of Ayungin Shoal, with the latter saying Manila had once promised to tow the warship out of the area, a claim denied by Philippine officials.

Escudero said the construction of structures in Ayungin should be done in haste as BRP Sierra Madre was degrading fast from its 24-year exposure to the elements.

“Sierra Madre’s greatest enemy is nature, and it will soon be lost to the sea. It’s now rusted, and [we cannot let] our soldiers die from tetanus,” he said.

“Its being beached there was supposed to be an ad hoc measure. After almost one-quarter [of a century] it is time for a permanent solution,” he said.

Escudero suggested that parts of the Ayungin structures be prefabricated on land and transported to the shoal to prevent any damage to the environment.

“There will be no China-style fortification in which the environment is permanently damaged,” he said.

Escudero’s proposal was received well by other senators.

Sen. Jinggoy Estrada, chair of the Senate Committee on National Defense and Security, hinted that he was keen to seek a budget bigger than P100 million to allow the government to carry out improvements on Ayungin as well as the Kalayaan group of islands, or the Spratlys.

“Even the health center, the barangay center, there are no other services that can be offered by our government there,” he noted.

Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri vowed to introduce “institutional amendments” in the proposed 2024 spending program for improvements on BRP Sierra Madre and on Pag-asa Island, the largest of the Philippine-administered islands in the Kalayaan group.

Senate Minority Leader Aquilino Pimentel III called Escudero’s proposal “an idea worth pursuing.”

“Because if an area is within our EEZ (exclusive economic zone) we have the right to build structures [there],” he said, referring to the 370-kilometer area that extends from a country’s territorial sea.

Escudero said initial funding support from Congress should give the president “flexibility” as the chief architect of the country’s foreign policy.

“What will be given is the congressional authority to build more in the Ayungin,” he said, adding that under budget rules, the President was authorized to augment any item in the General Appropriations Act.

Reached for comment, Navy chief Vice Adm. Toribio Adaci Jr. said he welcomed Escudero’s proposal of erecting permanent structures in Ayungin.

“We are appreciative and thankful for the support in order to enhance the habitability of the ship’s spaces and improve the physical condition of the vessel for our troops stationed thereat,” he said.

But he declined to disclose current funding for the upkeep and operations at BRP Sierra Madre, only saying it was “not much.”

“In the past years, the budget for Sierra Madre is basically used for the admin, logistics, and sustainment requirements of the troops stationed thereat, like food provisions, solar lighting systems, generators, medical provisions, and desalination equipment,” he told the Inquirer.

Sovereignty budget

In the 2022 National Expenditure Program (NEP), there was no specific item for maintenance of the grounded warship although an operating expenditure item under the Department of National Defense’s military service support units was labeled “Sovereignty of the State and the Filipino people protected” with an amount of P43.5 billion.

In the 2021 NEP, a similar item was allotted P41.4 billion, but in the proposed 2024 spending program, no such item appears.

In a privilege speech on Tuesday, Estrada again denied China’s claim that Philippine officials, including Cabinet members of his father, then President Joseph Estrada, had promised to remove BRP Sierra Madre from the shoal.

Such a claim “defies logic,” according to the younger Estrada.

“Ayungin Shoal is not just a piece of land; it symbolizes our assertions of sovereignty and our dedication to upholding international law,” he said, citing the Philippines’ 2016 arbitral victory against China’s sweeping claims in the region.

According to National Security Council spokesperson Jonathan Malaya, the country’s new national security policy (NSP) has again shifted to territorial defense from the previous administration’s focus on internal security.

He said President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. issued an executive order over the weekend adopting and approving the new policy from this year to 2028.

“If you read the new NSP, it highlights external security challenges, particularly the West Philippine Sea, China, Taiwan Straits, the nuclear proliferation threat in the Korean Peninsula and Ukraine,” Malaya said on Radyo 630.

This was unlike the Duterte administration when the NSP considered communist insurgents and local terrorist groups as the country’s biggest threats.