Aerial photo showing the BRP Sierra Madre where it was deliberately grounded in Ayungin Shoal, West Philippine Sea. (Photo courtesy of the Naval Forces West)

Senator Panfilo Lacson reiterated his support for improving infrastructure in the Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) in the West Philippine Sea on Thursday, proposing a total of P321.259 million for the purpose.

The state-run Philippine News Agency (PNA) reported that Lacson recommended that the government consider refurbishing and deploying reinforcements to the BRP Sierra Madre, which serves as the Philippine Navy’s (PN) outpost on the Ayungin Shoal.

Lacson, the chairperson of the Senate Defense Committee, noted the inadequate circumstances of Filipino soldiers in the area and recommended allocating P254.241 million to support the upgrade of Kalayaan facilities, including power system needs, among other things.

He also proposed the allocation of an extra P38.509 million for the Pag-asa Island Research Station (PIRS), which would include a P10 million two-storey dormitory building/marine facility, and P28.509 million for marine research and oceanographic equipment.

Lacson also said that the BRP Sierra Madre should be reconditioned rather than removed from the Ayungin Shoal.

The 100-meter vessel built in 1944 was deliberately run aground at Second Thomas Shoal and houses a detachment of Philippine Marines taking a close watch on Chinese vessels in the area.

“Dapat huwag natin bayaang iusog… Kung kakayanin lagay tayo ng isang barko doon na functioning,” Lacson said.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry had previously ordered that the Philippines remove the BRP Sierra Madre from the Ayungin Shoal, which it said was in Chinese seas.

This did not sit well with Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who claimed that the Ayungin Shoal is inside Manila’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and hence has sovereign rights.

On Tuesday, the Philippines resumed its resupply mission to troops at the BRP Sierra Madre, a week after the boats conducting the mission were blocked and fired with water cannons by the Chinese Coast Guard.

“In lieu of the recent events surrounding the Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal) incident, we are pleased to affirm that the government troops stationed at BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal have been successfully resupplied and thus continue to defend and protect our sovereignty in the area, according to a statement by the Naval Forces West (NFW).

Commodore Donn Anthony L Miraflor said that Philippine Navy vessels, such as BRP Jose Rizal and BRP Antonio Luna, have always been conducting patrols to safeguard the country’s maritime sovereignty and defend its rights in the West Philippine Sea and will continue to do so.

“Know that your Philippine Navy in the western frontier continues to uphold its mandate to defend and protect our maritime nation from such incursions,” Miraflor said.

Lacson supported moves under Senate President Vicente “Tito” Sotto III’s Senate Bill 2289 or an “An Act Declaring the Maritime Zones under the Jurisdiction of the Republic of the Philippines” and asked President Rodrigo Duterte to certify the bill as an urgent measure.

Under the bill, the Philippines could exercise sovereignty over its internal waters, archipelagic waters, and territorial sea, and the airspace over it as well as its seabed and subsoil in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and other existing laws and treaties.

The bill “provides for the needed flexibility in the passage of subsequent laws pertinent to the rights and obligations to which the Philippines is entitled and may exercise over its maritime zones.”

Lacson said while the Philippines should still maintain trade relations with China, it should continue to assert its sovereignty and sovereign rights over the exclusive economic zone.

“Mas maganda trade relations with China, i-maintain natin pero assert natin ang sovereignty and sovereign rights over the EEZ at ang ibang sovereignty natin ang nakataya (It is better to maintain trade relations with China but assert our sovereignty and sovereign rights over the EEZ),” he said. (PNA)