Row over Chinese vessels won’t hurt ties, COVID-19 vaccine supply – Duterte
MANILA, Philippines — The heated exchange between Manila and Beijing over China’s latest incursion in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) will not affect China’s provision of COVID-19 vaccines to the Philippines, according to President Rodrigo Duterte.
In a statement read yesterday by his spokesperson Harry Roque, the President said the continued presence of Chinese vessels around Julian Felipe Reef would be resolved “through diplomatic channels and through peaceful means.”
“Whatever differences we have with China will not define our bilateral relations and will not be an obstacle to the overall positive trajectory of our bilateral friendly relations and our deepening cooperation in pandemic response, including vaccine cooperation, and in postpandemic economic recovery,” Mr. Duterte said, echoing Roque’s earlier remark that the President was confident the issue could be resolved because of the close friendship between the Philippines and China.
But Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon assailed China’s “maritime bullying,” saying that under international law, it could not impose its authority over the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and infringe on Philippine sovereign rights.
Drilon also said Filipinos could not keep mum on China’s aggressions just because of its vaccine donations.
And 1Sambayan, a newly formed coalition led by retired Supreme Court senior associate justice Antonio Carpio, rallied support for Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. for their “firm and principled stand” on the issue. (See related story in World, Page B3.)
Lorenzana had been using strong language in calling on China to withdraw its ships from the WPS. Locsin said he was considering filing another diplomatic protest for China’s incursions.
But Secretary Carlito Galvez Jr., who is in charge of vaccine procurement, said maritime disputes with China are separate from its provision of COVID-19 vaccines to the Philippines.
“The Chinese government is joining us in fighting against COVID 19. It’s a fight of humanity, and the issue over the West Philippine Sea is a different matter,” Galvez said.
Most of the vaccines that the Philippines has received so far for its mass immunization drive came from China, which donated a million doses of Sinovac Biotech’s vaccine. The government also procured another one million Sinovac doses. (See related story on Page A5.)
The only other vaccines the country has received are 525,600 AstraZeneca doses from the COVAX facility. An expected second batch of COVAX vaccines has been delayed.
Call for support
The President brought up the Philippines’ concern about the Chinese ships at Julian Felipe Reef at a meeting with Chinese Ambassador Huang Xilian last month. He is said to have invoked the Philippines’ 2016 arbitral tribunal victory against Beijing’s claim to nearly all of the South China Sea.
However, hundreds of Chinese vessels remain stationed at Julian Felipe Reef and other reefs and islets in Philippine waters.
In a statement, 1Sambayan praised Lorenzana and Locsin for demanding the withdrawal of Chinese ships anchored at Julian Felipe Reef.
It expressed “strong support” for the two Cabinet officials’ demand that “China’s maritime militia vessels disguised as fishing vessels” leave the area immediately.
“All patriotic Filipinos, regardless of political affiliation, should unite as one in the defense of our sovereign territory and sovereign rights,” the group said, adding:
“Only Philippine fishing vessels can fish in the [EEZ] of the Philippines. We call on the entire Filipino people to likewise support [Secretaries] Lorenzana and … Locsin.”
Drilon said China’s continued presence in Philippine waters constituted “maritime bullying” and “upsets stability in the WPS,” according to Drilon.
He said the Philippines could not maintain a foreign policy based on the principle of always avoiding upsetting China, and pointed out that this stance had not even been economically beneficial to the country.
“Investment-wise, Indonesia has been getting more investments than the Philippines, even if they have not treated China the way that the Philippines has done,” he said.
Drilon issued the reminder that in 2020, the Philippines did not close its borders to travelers from China despite the knowledge that the deadly coronavirus had its origins in Wuhan.
In contrast,” he said, “Vietnam quickly banned the entry of tourists and that allowed them to control the spread of the [virus].”
Drilon urged the government to form a united stand with other claimant-nations, to show China that the Philippines is not the only country protesting its incursions.
Sen. Panfilo Lacson backed Drilon on the matter of seeking alliances, saying China would not be so dismissive of the Philippines if this country and its allies in the Asia-Pacific and the West can “band together and maintain a balance of power in the region.”
Lacson expressed doubt that the Philippines’ repeated filing of a diplomatic protest— as Locsin plans—would still matter.
“While it is a standard document used to call the attention of the other party, China’s consistent attitude of taking for granted such action taken by the [Department of Foreign Affairs] reduces it to a mere point of information,” he said.
Sen. Risa Hontiveros also urged the DFA to “take immediate action” and lead diplomatic initiatives within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
“Asean should stand together against China’s bullying. We should put our differences aside and work toward the common goal of opposing unfounded and over-ambitious Chinese territorial claims in the region,” Hontiveros said.
She said the 10-member Asean should be able to compel China to agree to a consensus on the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea.
Hontiveros lamented that Filipinos’ calls to China to respect their seas and their sovereignty had fallen on deaf ears.
She said China had been using its economic and military dominance to impose its will upon the region and “make its outrageous and excessive territorial claims a fait accompli.”
Raise it at UN
Former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario Jr. said the government should consider formally bringing China’s refusal to stay clear of the WPS to the attention of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.
“Perhaps it is time to explore fully all possible options for other concrete actions with the United Nations,” Del Rosario said in a statement, pointing out that Western countries had called for “the rule of law to prevail in line with the tribunal decision.”
“Secretary Locsin indicated a demarche to China if the Chinese ‘fishing vessels’ or maritime militia are still to be seen around Julian Felipe Reef. The demarche should convey purposeful direction,” he added. INQ
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