Vaccine czar Carlito Galvez Jr. expressed optimism on Tuesday, April 6, that the delivery of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) vaccines from China will not be affected by the heightened tension in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).
Galvez said that the territorial dispute of China and Philippines in the West Philippine Sea is a “separate issue” from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Separate po ‘yung issue na ‘yan. The Chinese government is joining us in the fight against COVID-19. It’s a fight for humanity. Talagang itong issue ng West Philippine Sea ay iba po ‘yan (It is a separate issue. The Chinese government is joining us in the fight against COVID-19. It’s a fight for humanity. The issue in the West Philippine Sea is really different),” said Galvez, a former military general and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Chief of Staff.
China is one of the sources of COVID-19 vaccines of the government. The Chinese vaccine CoronaVac, made by Sinovac Biotech, was in fact given an emergency use authorization (EUA) by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to allow its use in the country.
The national government procured 25 million doses of CoronaVac vaccines from China which will be delivered in batches until the end of 2021. Aside from this, China donated one million doses of CoronaVac vaccines to the Philippines last month.
But some lawmakers and maritime experts have expressed concern that China may be using the COVID-19 pandemic to pursue its maritime interests in the vast South China Sea, including in areas within the Philippines’ 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or known as the West Philippine Sea.
House Deputy Speaker Rufus Rodriguez questioned last week the possible connection of China’s vaccine donations to the Philippines with their latest incursion at the Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef in the West Philippine Sea.
“This sequence of events makes many of us wonder if there is a connection between the vaccine donation and China’s latest incursion in the West Philippine Sea, if we did not exchange marine resources for vaccine,” he said.
Meanwhile, retired senior associate justice Antonio Carpio said that China “is encroaching on our maritime zones but softening it by sending us vaccines.”
Last week, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana had a heated exchange with the diplomats from the Chinese Embassy over the presence of Chinese vessels at the reef nearly a month since they were first spotted.
Around 220 Chinese vessels believed to be manned by maritime militia were initially spotted at the Julian Felipe Reef on March 7. As of March 29, 44 vessels still remained in the area while the others have dispersed in the West Philippine Sea and Kalayaan Island Group.
The Department of Foreign Affairs have since filed two diplomatic protests with China due to the continued presence of Chinese vessels in the West Philippine Sea.