Congress seeks creation of West Philippine Sea Authority

Cecille Suerte Felipe, Sheila Crisostomo - The Philippine Star
Congress seeks creation of West Philippine Sea Authority
In his House Bill 9027, Parañaque City Rep. Gus Tambunting said the “specialized authority” would be dedicated to the “protection, management and sustainable development of the maritime resources and territories within the WPS.”
Philstar.com / File Photo

MANILA, Philippines — Amid calls for a focused and more organized handling of West Philippine Sea (WPS) affairs, a lawmaker has proposed the establishment of a “West Philippine Sea Authority” under the Office of the President.

In his House Bill 9027, Parañaque City Rep. Gus Tambunting said the “specialized authority” would be dedicated to the “protection, management and sustainable development of the maritime resources and territories within the WPS.”

The proposed body would also be instrumental in “upholding the Philippines’ sovereign rights, protecting its maritime resources, and contributing to regional stability and cooperation,” he said.

“This proposed act seeks to address the complexities and challenges associated with the WPS by outlining a clear framework for the establishment and operation of the West Philippine Sea Authority,” he added.

He said the West Philippine Sea encompasses a significant portion of the country’s exclusive economic zone and “holds vital economic, environmental and strategic importance for the Philippines.”

The creation of such body, he said, has become more urgent with China’s heightened aggressiveness in asserting its claim in waters and land features within Philippine territory.

He cited the Chinese’s repeated attempts – using water cannons and dangerous maneuver – to stop Filipino vessels from delivering supplies to a military outpost on the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal.

Tambunting said his proposed legislation is aligned with the 2016 landmark ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration which affirmed the Philippines’ maritime entitlements and invalidated China’s expansive maritime claims.

Senators, meanwhile, are inclined to approve a bigger budget for the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG), which has figured prominently in tackling China’s provocations in the West Philippine Sea.

“We have good news. The Senate is one and united that we will assist your budget this coming budget hearing. We will increase your funds (for 2024) whether confidential or intelligence funds or funding that will properly equip you for your needs in the WPS and protection all over our country,” Senate President Juan Miguel said yesterday at a public hearing of the Senate committee on national defense chaired by Sen. Jinggoy Estrada.

He lauded PCG officers and personnel for sacrificing their lives “to keep our men secure and safe in the West Philippine Sea.”

The PCG wants an additional allocation of P1.307 billion for next year. Its budget for this year amounts to P21.9 billion.

“You (PCG) are doing your job, we will do our job. That is the most important. I will be meeting with the Coast Guard, Navy, Army and military on their wish list to help you. Whatever political affiliation we are from, majority or minority, we are united to support you,” the Senate President said.

He also expressed appreciation for the support of the US and other allies for the Philippine position on the South China Sea issue.

“We can’t do it alone, we need help from allies. We welcome American help. Australia, Japan, South Korea and the European Union – they have offered help, not only in terms of equipment, but also in economic assistance. They know another country can have us hostaged,” he said in Filipino.

Like Zubiri, Estrada said the country should accept offers of assistance from other countries.

“Let’s use and accept, whether we admit it or not, we need help from friends. Given our defense circumstance now, we are not in a position to refuse. If our allies US, New Zealand, Australia, Japan and South Korea give us something, let’s accept it,” he said.

Also yesterday at the hearing on the budgets of the PCG and other agencies attached to the Department of Transportation (DOTr), PCG commandant Admiral Artemio Abu said the Coast Guard’s proposed P24.019 billion next year “is really not enough for us to do what is expected of us in doing the functions of the Coast Guard all over the country.”

“The Coast Guard is adhering to the direction of the President to have a sustained and continued presence in the West Philippine Sea, and that’s over and above the traditional functions of the Coast Guard in addressing maritime incidents, in conducting patrol missions, not only in West Philippine Sea, but all over the archipelago,” Abu said.

Abu said the PCG would also need a “conservative” P144-million intelligence fund from its current P10-million allocation that has remained unchanged since 2009, P600 million for fuel requirements and P563 million for retrofitting, dry-docking, repair and maintenance of PCG vessels.

“Among the DOTr-attached agencies, I think the one most active in putting their lives on the line is the PCG,” Zubiri said, as he asked Abu to provide the Senate his “wish list” for the Coast Guard.

DOTr Secretary Jaime Bautista said the executive only approved P24 billion of PCG’s request of P70 billion for next year.

“We welcome any increase in the PCG’s budget for the acquisition of floating and air assets. The PCG only has small vessels for its floating assets, the biggest at only 97 meters. It needs more floating vessels to fulfill its mandate to protect the maritime assets of the country,” Bautista said.

Sen. Robinhood Padilla, for his part, questioned the presence of a US Navy aircraft during the tension-filled resupply mission on Friday in the Ayungin Shoal. He asked the committee if US help was really needed for the operation. Estrada sought clarification if the success of the resupply mission could be attributed to the arrival of the US aircraft.

Defense Undersecretary Ignacio Madriaga stressed the resupply mission was successful due to the courage of the personnel of the PCG and the Philippine Navy.

Padilla claimed he was able to help deliver provisions to the Sierra Madre in Ayungin on a boat.

Jay Batongbacal, executive director of the UP Institute for Maritime Affairs and Law of the Sea, said it’s the Chinese who were responsible for provocations in the South China Sea. He said the CCG, unlike its Philippine counterpart, is not a civilian agency.

Batongbacal also said the US aircraft did not violate international law as it was merely monitoring the resupply mission that was taking place within the country’s exclusive economic zone.

“What is clear is that China used its coast guard to stop the resupply mission as seen in the videos,” he noted.

Meanwhile, PCG deputy commandant for administration Vice Admiral Ronnie Gil Gavan said the US has donated a P250-million educational and technical building to the PCG.

In a statement, Gavan said the newly constructed Specialized Education and Technical building would be used to educate, develop and enhance the knowledge and skills of PCG personnel.

“The building serves as an important instrument for the enhancement of the capabilities of our sailors, which will fortify the PCG’s mandate,” Gavan said.

The two-story facility was turned over by the US government, represented by Ambassador MaryKay Carlson, to the PCG last Sept. 11.

“Let this building remind us that from adversity, we can build strength; from tragedy, we can find hope; and from a shared vision, we can create a brighter future,” Gavan said. — Marc Jayson Cayabyab, Evelyn Macairan

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