MANILA — An official leading the country's inoculation drive against COVID-19 said on Friday he "would not compromise" the national stake in the West Philippine Sea, despite vaccines from China.
China, which is supplying 25 million vaccine doses to the Philippines, has refused to recognize an arbitral ruling that junks its sweeping claims to the resource-rich waterway. Observers have said Beijing might use its vaccines to push for its regional agenda.
"In this pandemic, the global interest or the global commons is really to save humanity, so all countries rallied to support this," vaccine czar Carlito Galvez said in a Senate inquiry.
"That’s the context that we are looking [at]—that every country wanted to help to help our global pandemic… Iyong ating mga (our) differences in the West Philippine Sea should be set aside because this is a pandemic," he added.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros interjected, "Iyong sinabi n’yong we may set aside our differences on the West Philippine Sea dahil nga may global pandemic, pero bawat bansa naman po may bottom lines, kahit lahat tayo nag-e-effort magtulungan."
(You said that we may set aside our differences on the West Philippine Sea because there is a global pandemic, but every country has bottom lines, even if all of us are making an effort to help each other.)
"I’m simply asking for a reassurance na hindi natin babawasan ng ating pagtaguyod ng national interest sa West Philippine Sea para rito," she told Galvez.
(I’m simply asking for a reassurance that we will not lessen our push for national interest in the West Philippine Sea for this.)
The former military general told the senator: "I would like to make a clarification: we’ll not compromise our stake, meaning in this pandemic, we will… Our selection of the vaccine is science-based."
The Philippines will get its first 50,000 vaccine doses from China's Sinovac Biotech in February, Galvez earlier said.
Beijing aims to donate 500,000 anti-coronavirus jabs to the Philippines, for which it also recently approved a P3.72-billion grant, the seventh since 2016.
Beijing's offer of its homegrown labs to poorer countries "is part of their campaign to improve China's standing in the world, and to win the hearts and minds of people," said Philippine Ambassador Chito Sta. Romana.
"The point of this vaccine diplomacy is on the one hand iyong (their) pledge to make it a global public good, to make it available, particularly to their close friends," he said in the same briefing.
"But whether they'll make it a condition sa (in) geopolitics, that has not up in a discussion... There has been no attempt of the Chinese to link the two together," added Sta. Romana.
Chinese vaccine diplomacy "is not unconditional," Ardhitya Eduard Yeremia and Klaus Heinrich Raditio recently said in a paper published this month by the Singapore-based Yusof Ishak institute.
"Beijing may use its vaccine donations to advance its regional agenda, particularly on sensitive issues such as its claims in the South China Sea," they said.
The move by President Xi Jinping to offer up a Chinese vaccine worldwide as a "public good" also allows Beijing to paint itself as a leader in global health, said the CFR's Huang, seizing a mantle left untended as the US retreated under Donald Trump's "America First" doctrine.
Washington is notably absent from a global alliance of 189 countries that have pledged to distribute vaccines equitably. Beijing signed up in October as its drugmakers launched final stage trials.
But this program has only secured enough doses to cover 20 percent of the population of low- and middle-income countries by the end of next year -- offering a commercial opportunity.
China is ramping up production facilities to make one billion coronavirus shots next year -- and, having largely tamed the outbreak at home, it will have a surplus to sell.
If China can capture just 15 percent of the market in middle and low-income countries, it would net around $2.8 billion in sales, according to an estimate by Essence Securities, a Hong Kong-based brokerage firm.
"Everyone is clamoring for a vaccine and Beijing is in a good position to tap gold at the bottom of the pyramid," said an analyst at the company, who declined to be named.
-- With a report from Agence France-Presse