MANILA (UPDATE) - China is trying to "soften the blow" of seizing the West Philippine Sea by donating vaccines to Manila, former Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said Wednesday.
The Philippines on Wednesday received 400,000 doses more of Sinovac's COVID-19 vaccine donated by Beijing, in addition to the 600,000 doses that arrived last month.
Meanwhile, over 200 Chinese ships have been encroaching into the West Philippine Sea, the country's exclusive economic zone in the disputed South China Sea, which China claims in near entirety.
For Carpio, the Philippine government should "accelerate" its procurement of vaccines from nations with which it does not have a sea dispute.
"I think with this development China is trying to soften the blow, seizing our maritime zones at the same time sending us vaccines...We cannot be seen as getting aid from China and just allowing China to seize our maritime zones," he told ANC's Headstart.
"If we protest the Chinese incursion of our maritime zones, it would appear we’re like ungrateful because China has given us vaccines. We should not allow ourselves to be placed in this situation. We should have the option to get vaccines from other sources, from those who do not seek to encroach on our maritime zones," said the former justice, who was part of the team that represented Manila before an international tribunal in the case it eventually won against Beijing on the disputed waters.
China's donation of vaccines is "unrelated" to its maritime dispute with the Philippines, Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said.
"Any diminution of commitment to the totality of our rights in the West and South China seas would disobey PRRD’s (President Rodrigo Duterte) UN declaration and is tantamount to disloyalty to the Republic," he said in a tweet.
The Philippines earlier filed a diplomatic protest against China over reports that more than 200 Chinese maritime militia vessels were seen moored in the West Philippine Sea.
Carpio said the presence of the Chinese vessels at the Julian Felipe Reef may be a prelude to occupation and the building of a naval base.
The Chinese Embassy in Manila said the boats were fishing vessels that recently took shelter near Niu’e Jiao, part of its island group Nansha Qundao, due to "rough sea conditions."
"It has been a normal practice for Chinese fishing vessels to take shelter under such circumstances. There is no Chinese Maritime Militia as alleged," it said.
"Any speculation in such helps nothing but causes unnecessary irritation. It is hoped that the situation could be handled in an objective and rational manner."
But the United States, in a statement in support of the Philippines, said Chinese ships have been mooring in the area for months, no matter the weather.
Malacañang said friends can talk everything out in response to the presence of some 200 Chinese boats.
"Meron po tayong malapit na pagkakaibigan... Lahat naman po napag-uusapan sa panig ng mga magkakaibigan at magkapitbahay," Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said.
(We have a close friendship. Friends and neighbors can talk everything out.)
--With a report from Willard Cheng, ABS-CBN News