MANILA — Malacañang on Monday advised the public to wait whether or not a donation of COVID-19 vaccines from the United States would affect its troops deal with the Philippines.
"We still have to receive the vaccines to begin with," President Rodrigo Duterte's spokesman, Harry Roque, said when asked how the US vaccine donation would affect the former's stance on Manila and Washington's Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
"First and foremost, hindi pa natin alam kung meron talagang darating at kung ilan, at ilan ang darating. So, hintayin muna natin na dumating," he said in a news briefing.
(We still don't know if there are really vaccines that will arrive, and how many. So let us wait for them to arrive first.)
"The President has been pondering on the issue and has a bigger framework of analysis. And let's just await his decision because he is the only one who can decide on this matter," Roque said.
The US is the Philippines' only defense ally. Last February, Duterte said the United States must "pay" a toll that he did not identify, if it wanted to keep its VFA with the Philippines.
Philippine Ambassador to the US Jose Manuel "Babe" Romualdez said last Friday that Manila will be among those that will benefit from the 80 million doses of vaccine stockpile that the United States has committed to the world.
"We still don't know how many will be given to us. But this donation, without any strings attached to it, so to speak, it's just really part of a program they have that will start really helping other nations to be able to fight this virus," Romualdez said at Monday's press briefing with Roque.
US President Joe Biden later this week is set to announce the vaccine donation program for America's "close allies" and countries in need, Romualdez said, quoting information from the White house.
"But the Philippines, definitely, will receive on the first batch," the envoy said.
The US leaves it "up to" to the Philippines how it will allocate the upcoming vaccine donation, he added.
Duterte ordered last year the abrogation of the VFA, which is anchored on the two countries' 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and governs the conduct of visiting American troops.
But the termination has been suspended twice, citing relevant developments in the region and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Romualdez said relevant offices of Manila and Washington have been meeting on the fate of the VFA, which, according to him, the latter wanted to keep.
"Nagkaroon na nga tayo ng mga meeting diyan sa DFA at saka yung counterpart here over the past couple of months to improve on this, yung ating tinatawag na TA or Terms of Agreement na prinepare ngayon ng DFA at saka nandiyan na sa opisina ng Presidente," he said.
(We had meetings there in the DFA and in our counterpart here over the past couple of months to improve on this, on what we call the TA or Terms of Agreement that was prepared by the DFA and which is now in the office of the President.)
"Yung Amerika, siyempre, they would like us to continue with it," he added.
(America, of course, they would like us to continue with it.)
Duterte had sought to distance the Philippines from the US since assuming the presidency in 2016, bringing up from time to time the latter's colonial rule and what he regards as Wasington's intrusion in domestic affairs, including on human rights issues.
At the same time, he forged friendlier relations with China and Russia, with which the US has lingering issues.
Citing the 75 years of diplomatic relations between the Philippines and US, Romualdez said the latter "would like to see us really continue to have a good relation, and I can feel it more now dahil, eto nga, (because) they have reached out to us on helping us in every way they can."
In April, Romualdez said the United States was ready to help the Philippines in its maritime dispute with China. Manila has repeatedly protested the presence of hundreds of Chinese vessels within Philippine waters since March.
China, which snubs a UN-backed arbitral ruling that junked its sweeping claims to the waterway, has donated at least 1 million COVID-19 shots to the Philippines.
Duterte, who has pursued investments and loans from China, recently said the arbitral victory was a scrap of paper that could be thrown into the wastebasket.
But he said that while he could not go to war with the economic superpower, he would not pull back Philippine ships from the contested waterway.