Why a ‘measly’ P80 million for Pag-asa Island upgrades? – Recto
MANILA, Philippines — A day after President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. assured troops stationed in Puerto Princesa City of government support and thanked them for “holding the line” in the West Philippine Sea, Deputy Speaker Ralph Recto noted with dismay the “measly” P80 million allocated next year for the improvement of military facilities on the biggest and most strategically important Philippine outpost in the disputed sea.
“For all the loud noises the government makes in defending what is ours in the West Philippine Sea, it seems that the funds it is proposing in the 2024 national budget for improving military facilities in Pag-asa Island in Kalayaan, Palawan, amounts to a whimper,” Recto said in a statement on Saturday.
He stressed that the “earnest improvement and expansion of Pag-asa Island” should begin next year with a more sizable budget, adding: “Our occupation of Pag-asa Island is unchallenged. Conventional wisdom dictates that we transform an island we physically possess into a bulwark.”
If the P80 million allocated in the proposed budget was just an oversight, Recto said, this could be still remedied by a budget erratum proposing a higher amount.
Or Congress “can do it on its own … when faced with executive inaction,” he added.
Occupied by Filipinos since 1971, the 37-hectare island has since been home to a civilian community — currently made up of around 400 permanent residents — under the jurisdiction of Kalayaan municipality in Palawan province. As a military outpost, it hosts the Rancudo Airfield and Emilio Liwanag Naval Station.
A check of the 2024 National Expenditure Program, submitted by the executive branch as the basis for the next year’s budget to be approved by Congress, showed that the P80-million purse for Pag-asa will be for two projects under the Palawan 1st District Engineering Office of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).
Around P40 million — half of the amount — is for the construction of an igloo-type ammunition storage and the other half is for the construction of a two-story military barracks.
Both items are tucked in the P3.8-billion fund for the “Tatag ng Imprastraktura para sa Kapayapaan at Seguridad” (Tikas) program of the DPWH.
Recto pointed out that the proposed funding for Pag-asa Island next year “translates to a mere 2.1 percent” of the budget for the Tikas program.
Funds intended for Pag-asa for projects, such as “sunk-into-ground land improvements,” — and not movable equipment like aircraft and ships — should also be itemized in the proposed 2024 national budget.
In need of repair
And yet, he said, the Rancudo Airfield, which features an unpaved airstrip, is in dire need of repair as both ends of its runways had been eroded by the sea.
“The airstrip is eroding and it needs shore protection. But the Rancudo Airfield did not even get a share of the funds for coastal protection projects for 2024,” Recto said.
He expressed hope that more funds are tucked in the lump-sum funds for the P50-billion modernization program of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, or in the capital outlays of the Philippine Navy and Philippine Air Force worth P8.25 billion.
“But if it is just P80 million, then who would have thought that the government will be proposing a budget that small for a front-line military outpost in the middle of an area rife with tension?” Recto asked.
He further noted the funds set for Pag-asa Island were too small compared to other items in the DPWH budget, such as P15.2 billion for road safety and maintenance projects and P15.9 billion for the agency’s “feasibility studies.”
“If P80 million is all there is, then we will be spending more for road guardrails than on an island that guards our interest in the disputed area,” he warned.
Holding the line
In a speech in Palawan on Friday, President Marcos reassured troops under the AFP’s Western Command in Puerto Princesa City that the government would not allow any nation to seize any Philippine territory.
“Somehow, even with our small force, in comparison to those we have encountered in the West Philippine Sea, we have produced good results because we have made it clear not just in the Philippines, but in the whole world, that we will not allow our territory to be taken from us,” the president said.
“We, of course, will continue to defend our territorial sovereignty, our territorial rights. We have not changed our approach. It is other countries around us that have changed their approach,” he said.
He hailed the troops for “holding the line” amid China’s persistent harassment of Philippine Coast Guard patrol teams and local fishermen in the disputed waters.
“And that is the very difficult and important job that the Western Command has before you. And I can only say that I think it is significant to note that the efforts that you have been making under your command have been effective,” he said.
“Congratulations for the achievements that you have made already in terms of holding the line and we for our part, we are here to help you all,” he added.
The president also assured the troops of his administration’s continuing support for the AFP modernization program.
He repeated an earlier statement that Manila would respond to Beijing’s release of a new map, which the government said was baseless.