Esperon bares priorities on Duterte's last hurrah: Strengthen position in WPS, end CPP-NPA

With less than a year left in the term of President Duterte, National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. laid out his priorities to keep the country safe from all forms of internal and external security threats.

National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. (REY BANIQUET/Presidential Photo / MANILA BULLETIN FILE PHOTO)

On top of Esperon's priority list are the strengthening of the country's position in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) and ending the menace of the Communist Party of the Philippines - New People's Army (CPP-NPA).

According to Esperon, the country's maritime dispute with China and other claimant countries in the WPS "is a problem that can be solved not in our lifetime."

"Might as well strengthen our positions, not to the point of going to war but through the West Philippine Sea code," said Esperon in a phone interview with the Manila Bulletin, moments after Duterte delivered his sixth and final State of the Nation Address (SONA) Monday night, July 26.

The top security adviser was referring to the Code of Conduct (COC) in the South China Sea (SCS) that is being drafted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) and China to establish a regional framework in the volatile waters for the promotion of regional peace and stability.

In his SONA, Duterte asserted that the arbitral award on the South China Sea "is now part of international law, beyond the compromise and beyond the reach of passing governments to dilute, diminish, or abandon."

The tribunal ruling, awarded by the Hague-based Permanenct Court of Arbitration in 2016, affirmed the Philippines' position and rejected China's excessive claims in the SCS, including parts of the WPS that are within the 200-nautical mile of our exclusive economic zone (EEZ).

"Remember that our condition there is final, it is part of international law and the President reiterated it. We may not be able to drive away the maritime militia now but by deploying our forces in areas that are part of our EEZ, then mababawi natin paunti unti 'yan (we can claim it back)," Esperon said.

Within the country's 200-nautical mile EEZ, China has established seven stations, Vietnam has 21, and Malaysia has five, according to Esperon, who is also the chairman of the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

"Talaga namang disputed iyan at napakalawak. Sabi naman ni Presidente, magpalakas tayo (It really is a disputed and vast area. But the President said that we need to strengthen ourselves)," Esperon said.

"If it will take us many years, then so be it but we will not give way," he added.

Esperon underscored the importance of getting modern assets and equipment to beef up the capabilities of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) in patrolling the WPS.

Communist insurgency

Also among the priorities of Esperon is the thwarting of the communist insurgency problem, which has hounded the country for more than 50 years now, by "ending the CPP-NPA" before the President ends his term in June 2020.

"Wawakasan namin 'yan (We will end them)," said Esperon, who spoke as the vice-chairman of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).

To achieve this, Esperon said that a "whole-of nation-approach" must be sustained to turn back the communist groups in the communities.

He said focused military and police operations must be sustained to dismantle the remaining guerilla bases in all barangays.

After this, he said development should take place in the communities by delivering the most basic services so the root causes of society's ills -- such as poverty, lack of access to food and water, and lack of infrastructures among others -- "will not be exploited" by the communist groups.

"Sa ELCAC, ang mga ginagawa natin ay very coordinated and harmonized operations covering everything, (In the ELCAC, we are doing a very coordinated and harmonized operations covering everything)," he said.

"Lahat ng root causes of insurgency that they want to exploit, wawalain namin 'yon (All the root causes of insurgency that they want to explot, we will address it)," he noted.

Esperon discussed the Barangay Development Program (BDP), the flagship project of the anti-communist task force, which aims to provide P20 million worth of "development package" to NPA-freed barangays.

The NTF-ELCAC has distributed more than P16 billion to over 800 barangays that were cleared of communist influence from 2016 to 2019 and are therefore included in the first batch of their BDP recipients, he said.

For the second batch of recipients, Esperon said they would ask the Congress to provide P47 billion to NTF-ELCAC's budget to deliver the development packages to 2,380 barangays.

These barangays were cleared of communist influence from 2011 to 2016, and from 2020 to 2021, he stated.

"We wanted former guerilla centers to be developed. We are proposing P20 million per barangay so P47 billion in total to at least develop our countryside," Esperon said.

Other priorities

Aside from the WPS and communist insurgency, the top security adviser said he will also pursue programs to strengthen the country's counter-terrorism campaign, cybersecurity, environment security, food security, and border security.

"It's really strengthening all of these mechanisms. Ang coordination natin sa ibang agencies ay talagang puspusan (Our coordination with other agencies will be rigorous)," he said.