Philippines drifting to Sino-Russo orbit
THREE months into his presidency, erstwhile Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte announced his country’s “separation” from America and started talking of the Beijing-Manila-Moscow axis playing in his mind.
“In this venue, your honors, I announce my separation from the United States,” Duterte told an applauding crowd Oct. 20, 2016, in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, in his first visit to China. “Both in military, not maybe social, but economics also.”
“America has lost now. I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow,” he told the forum. “And maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world: China, Philippines, and Russia. It’s the only way.”
After attacking the US to the delight of his hosts, Duterte who arrived with a planeload of Manila’s top businessmen, wrapped up his four-day state visit Oct. 21, carrying home promises of investments ($15 billion) and soft loans ($9 billion).
Many of those promises made in 2016 are still stuck in the pipeline. For physical proof of delivery, two spans funded by China are being rushed across the Pasig River, one connecting Mandaluyong to Rockwell in Makati, and another linking Binondo to Intramuros in Manila.
But Duterte failed to convince China President Xi Jinping to allow Filipinos back to their traditional fishing grounds at the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal 220 km off Zambales that is now patrolled by China’s coast guard from Hainan province 980 km away.
The Duterte-Xi joint statement ran more than twice the length of this column, but avoided mentioning the arbitral ruling of July 12, 2016, at The Hague that struck down China’s claim over much of the South China Sea through which more than $5-trillion trade moves annually.
* * *
WHILE bad-mouthing long-time allies, Duterte continues to cozy up to Xi, now his friend and benefactor whose latest favor was the donation of 600,000 doses of Chinese COVID-19 vaccines and the speedy sale of a million more.
After “dropping the ball” and thus delaying the processing and delivery of vaccines from Western sources, the administration opened the door to the Chinese vaccines, leaving Filipinos who are cautious of drugs made in China no choice but to take them.
More countries are also beginning their mass vaccination with Chinese vaccines, which have been donated to at least 53 developing countries and exported to 27.
Chinese Ambassador to Beirut Wang Kejian said China was donating 50,000 doses of Sinopharm vaccine to Lebanon. Uzbekistan has approved a vaccine developed by China’s Anhui Zhifei Longcom Biofarmaceutical for use, according to the Uzbek ministry of innovation.
Indonesia has ordered 125 million doses of Sinovac vaccine. More than one million people in Turkey have been vaccinated with it, while 10 million more doses are to arrive soon in Ankara.
* * *
RUSSIA President Vladimir Putin need not try too hard to entice Duterte with his vaccine diplomacy. The latter is predisposed to it, if his statements and body language since he became president are any indications.
Striking while the iron is hot, Putin is sending this month 500,000 doses of Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine developed by Gamaleya Institute. The Philippines is buying 20 million doses, according to vaccine czar Carlito Galvez.
In contrast, when Duterte said in February that he would withdraw his notice of termination of the PH-US Visiting Forces Agreement if the US gave him “guided rockets” (missiles?) and 20 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines, the White House had no positive response.
With the delivery of vaccines from the West having been held up by “vaccine nationalism” and other market issues, the Philippines will be using mostly those from China and Russia until July, based on delivery schedules announced by Galvez.
In his 30-minute phone conversation Tuesday with Putin, Duterte reiterated his invitation for him to visit Manila, which the Russian leader accepted.
In October 2019, Duterte himself visited Moscow and Sochi, his second after his trip to Russia in May 2017 that was cut short by the siege in Marawi City.
* * *
EARLIER ridiculed in the West, Sputnik V is now being noticed for its reported 90 percent efficacy and for being comparatively cheaper and easier to handle than vaccines that require cold storage all the way until they are injected.
The Russian serum can be kept in ordinary refrigerators. Two doses needed per person have a listed price of US$20.
At least 18 countries have approved its use, among them the Philippines, Paraguay, Hungary, Armenia, Serbia, Venezuela, Iran, Bolivia, Algeria, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Palestine, Mexico, and the United Arab Emirates.
* * *
RUSSIA became on Aug. 11, 2020, the first country to officially register a coronavirus vaccine and declare it ready for use. Despite international skepticism, Putin vouched for its safety and efficacy, mentioning that one of his daughters had been inoculated with it.
Scientists had warned that using it before passing Phase 3 trials, which usually require months of testing on thousands of vaccinees, was risky. But Putin went ahead, distributing it in Russia and offering it to other countries, including the Philippines.
Foreign Secretary Teddy Locsin Jr. had said that he would be taking Sputnik V, although he also announced that he was ordering Moderna for his department’s diplomatic personnel. Moderna is an mRNA-type vaccine developed by a pharma firm in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
With the US and the European Union having cornered the bulk of vaccine supplies, many countries wanting to buy the serum for their people are turning to China, and then Russia.
The need of all countries for rapid mass vaccination has opened an opportunity for China and Russia to use their large vaccine output for strategic political or diplomatic moves during the pandemic whose end is not yet in sight.
The COVAX facility under the World Health Organization, intended to ensure that countries without the means to compete for enough vaccines get their fair share, has been moving but obviously not fast enough.