OF TREES AND FOREST
Buried in all the political noises surrounding the pre-election skirmishes among those seeking elective positions in 2022 was President Rodrigo Duterte’s participation in the 38th and 39th Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit. The Summit was held from Oct. 26 to 28 under the leadership of Brunei Darussalam with the theme, “We Care, We Prepare, We Prosper.” It was held virtually against the backdrop of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, the situation in Myanmar, and the territorial disputes in the region. Looming in the background is the US-China rivalry that has made our region the playground of the powerful.
President Duterte, in his speech during the opening ceremonies, touched on this when he asked ASEAN to “stand on our own” even while “we welcome and appreciate the support of our external partners.” He pointed to the need not only to expedite vaccine procurement through the COVID-19 response fund but also the establishment of regional vaccine research and production facilities to be ready for future public health emergencies.
President Duterte, I think, was very astute in laying the groundwork for a regional response and initiative to make sure that as we recover from this debilitating pandemic, we can arm ourselves better to fight a future public health emergency. In this regard, the President also cited the need to establish the ASEAN Center on Public Health Emergencies and Emerging Diseases.
That part of the President’s speech showcased the cornerstone of the foreign policy of his presidency: Independence. During his presidency, the President has emphasized the need to step out of the shadows of the United States and instead expand our partnerships with other regional allies. This was crucial especially considering the fact that Southeast Asia has become another playground for what commentators call as the “new Cold War” between the two superpowers.
Both in the Philippines and ASEAN, this geopolitical rivalry has even found its way in the so-called “vaccine diplomacy.” China threw the first punch when it put into motion its vaccine diplomacy strategy in Asia by donating and making available to many countries China-made jabs made by Sinovac and Sinopharm. In fact, Indonesia was one of the biggest buyers of the Sinovac vaccines with about 125 million doses ordered. The Philippines has also relied heavily on Sinovac during the early stages when vaccines from other countries were scarce. This is reflected in the fact that of the 100,528,240 total vaccines we have received as of Oct. 28, 44.5 million are Sinovac jabs.
But recently, there have been some questions about the efficacy of the China-made vaccines. With reports of hundreds of fully vaccinated healthcare workers getting infected with COVID-19, Thailand and Indonesia have announced a shift in its vaccine strategy either by mixing Sinovac with AstraZeneca or giving Pfizer or Moderna booster shots to those who received the Sinovac jabs. Malaysia has also announced that it would stop using Sinovac once its supply ran out.
To be fair, various clinical trials across the world, have placed Sinovac and Sinopharm’s efficacy rate between 50 percent and 79 percent and, more importantly, both were found to be highly effective in preventing hospitalizations and deaths. But the shift in attitude might be related to the United States own vaccine diplomacy. After being accused of hoarding vaccines, the US has made substantial donation to the COVAX facility and has promised to donate millions of doses to ASEAN countries from their own supply surplus. To date the US has donated about 140 million doses to at least 93 countries with around 29 million jabs to Asia and the Pacific including the Philippines (6.4 million), Vietnam (5 million), and, Indonesia (4.5 million). In the Philippines, supplies of US-made jabs Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have a combined total of 40.5 million.
But President Duterte’s message was very clear — we value international cooperation and are thankful for assistance from other countries, but we need to be able to assert our independence and not be totally dependent on others, whether it concerns the COVID vaccines, the territorial disputes, or our own affairs. But right now, the most important thing is to get our people protected from COVID-19 and begin what the President called as “the long and difficult road to comprehensive and economic recovery.”