Vice Admiral Rene Medina (lef) accepts the flag of the Western Command (WESCOM) from AFP chief of staff Lt. Gen. Benjamin Madrigal Jr. (right), signaling his entry as its next commander from Commodore Dorvin Legaspi (middle) on March 2, 2019. (Photo courtesy of WESCOM Public Affairs Office)

The newly-installed commander of the Western Command (WESCOM) vowed Saturday to “take the plunge” in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) by “providing frameworks to increase Filipino presence” in the disputed region and assert the country’s lawful ownership and sovereign rights over its exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

Vice Admiral Rene V. Medina said this will be done with the help of relevant government agencies and authorities “to provide a condition in the WPS that is comfortable and safe to live in.”

“We will provide frameworks for increased Filipino presence [in Kalayaan] to boundlessly assert our lawful ownership and sovereign rights over our exclusive economic zone through the help of appropriate government agencies and authorities so that we can provide a condition in the WPS that is comfortable and safe to live in,” Medina said in his speech after accepting the leadership of the WESCOM from acting commander Commodore Dorvin Legaspi.

Medina explained in a separate interview with the media after the formal ceremony that what he meant was there should be a “suitable framework” that would make Filipino fishermen aware they are safe and could freely move in the Philippines’ EEZ in the WPS to fish.

Medina is aware of the advent of Filipino fishermen in the West Philippine Sea, but those belonging to Kalayaan municipality seem to be afraid because of reports of the increased presence of paramilitary vessels by China between Subi Reef and Pag-asa Island.

“Ang pagkaalam namin ‘yong mga fishermen lang natin ang medyo takot. Hindi naman ipinagbabawal talaga… sila na lang talaga ang medyo… natatakot lang sila talaga sa dami ng ano doon… pero on the part of the WESCOM, we encourage our fishermen to fish there para masanay din sila. Kasi kung titignan natin, sanay din ‘yong mga sa kabila na nagpupunta doon. Hindi lang talaga nasanay ang mga fishermen natin sa area which we call common ground among the fishermen,” he said.

Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff Lieutenant General Benjamin Madrigal Jr. further explained that providing the essential supporting frames to expand the presence of Filipinos in the WPS also means getting different agencies and authorities to work together for the purpose.

He said it is not only the military that should be present in the disputed region but also other government agencies in charge of environmental protection, fisheries, and others.

“Kaya nga ito ang ginagawa natin, we encourage ‘yong inteagency coordination kasi sabi nga natin, una sa lahat, of course, ‘yong the rights of our people to fish and the protection of our fishing areas kasama natin dyan ang Coast Guard, kasama natin ang maritime community for maritime law enforcement. Dapat pinagsasama-sama natin ‘yong ating mga capabilites… para nadadagdagan. Kasi hindi navy lamang o military lamang ang puwede… of course, our locals, dapat ito pagusap-usapan para ano ‘yong kanilang areas na pupuntahan ay matutulungan sila ng ating security forces to make sure they are not disturbed sa kanilang hanapbuhay,” Madrigal said.

Madrigal said the protection of aquatic resources in the area is the responsibility of the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR), but the AFP is currently performing the two agencies’ functions in Kalayaan municipality because the interagency framework has not yet been set up.

Madrigal added the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) and the Philippine National Police (PNP) Maritime should also have an increased presence in the WPS to enforce maritime laws and protection of life and properties at sea and to prevent smuggling of aquatic products.

He said the interagency framework will work in Palawan like how it did in Eastern Mindanao concerning the “Southern backdoor and the very porous borders of the country in the area.”

Madrigal was at the WESCOM to facilitate the change of command between Legaspi and Medina.

In February, Kalayaan mayor Roberto del Mundo said the daily presence of over 50 Chinese boats in the waters between Pag-asa Island and Subi Reef has scared them and other Filipino fishermen away from the area.

He said since December 2018, their daily sightings never go down to less than 50 and they are unable to identify if the boats are merely fishing or filled with Chinese undercover agents spying on Filipino constructions going on in Pag-asa.

At present, that has never changed, said Del Mundo also on Saturday.

“Wala na, talagang di na kami makapangisda doon sa kabila sa pagitan ng Pag-asa at Subi. Dyan na lang kami paikot-ikot sa Pag-asa. Dito sa may area ng Subi sa may tatlong sandbars hindi na talaga kami makapasok doon. Singkuwenta pa rin araw-araw ang nakikita namin doon na mga bangka at barko ng China,” he said.

The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) on February 6 in a feature titled “Under Pressure: Philippine Construction Provokes Paramilitary Response”, noted that the increased presence of Chinese boats in the area between Subi Reef and Pag-asa Island only started when the AFP begun the construction of a new beaching ramp.

AMTI said the ramp which was supposed to have been completed in 2018, will be used to easily deploy construction materials and equipment to Pag-asa for planned upgrades of the deteriorating runway.

Due to the ramp construction project, China apparently responded by sending in “a large fleet of ships from Subi Reef,” which is merely 12 nautical miles southwest of Pag-asa Island.

Despite this, the AFP is determined to finish the construction of the ramp.

“WESCOM will devotedly commit to finishing the projects that the previous leadership has started in the Kalayaan Islands Group,” he said.

Medina, who was the former commander of the Naval Forces Western Mindanao, will serve as the 32nd commander of the WESCOM.

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is the chief of correspondents of Palawan News. She covers defense, politics, tourism, health, and sports stories. She loves to travel and explore different foods.