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Is the real price of China’s vaccine ‘donation’ the West Philippine Sea?

By Tanya Lara Published Mar 24, 2021 5:30 pm Updated Mar 24, 2021 5:37 pm

Are the donated COVID-19 vaccines China’s Trojan Horse offering to the Philippines?

Retired Supreme Court Senior Associate Justice Antonio Carpio said on ANC’s Headstart today, “It’s possible that China is encroaching on our maritime zone but softening it by sending us vaccines, by donating vaccines. It’s part of their PR effort to soften the blow but we should not fall for that.”

Here’s a quick timeline: Feb. 28, China’s first batch of donated Sinovac vaccine arrives in the Philippines. March 7: the Chinese incursion into Julian Felipe Reef with 220 militia vessels is first reported by the Philippine Coast Guard. March 21: the Philippines files a diplomatic protest over the Chinese fleet. March 23: Another batch of donated Sinovac vaccine arrives.

Given the timing of the military incursion into the West Philippine Sea, the comparison between the donated vaccines and the Trojan Horse in legends has been swirling on social media.

The Trojan Horse horse, filled with soldiers inside, was a “gift” by the Greeks to the city of Troy. As the Trojans slept, the Greeks burst out of the wooden horse, burned down Troy and killed its people.

About 200 vessels are moored in Julian Felipe Reef.

Carpio said, “Our maritime zones are important. They’re vital to our survival. We can get those vaccines from other sources. We don’t have to rely on China.”

He explained that all the fish, oil, gas and other mineral resources in Julian Felipe Reef “belong exclusively to the Filipino people.” He cited the Philippine Constitution which provides that all marine wealth in our economic zone should be reserved exclusively for Filipino citizens.

“That’s why the government is mandated to protect our marine life in Julian Felipe Reef.”

The Philippines has demanded the withdrawal of the vessels. The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said in a statement that “Julian Felipe Reef in the Kalayaan Island Group lies in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone. We reiterate that the continued deployment, lingering presence and activities of Chinese vessels in Philippine maritime zones blatantly infringe upon Philippine sovereignty, sovereign rights, and jurisdiction.”

Coincidence or China’s playbook?

Just off Palawan, Whitson Reef or Julian Felipe Reef is now swarming with Chinese vessels. 
The West Philippine Sea. 

On March 20, the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea (NTF-WPS) said it received a report from the Philippine Coast Guard on the presence of around 220 Chinese fishing vessels, believed to be part of China’s maritime militia, in line formation at the Whitsun or Julian Felipe Reef on March 7.

China said they were fishing boats sheltering from storm. There were no storms recorded from March 7 to March 24 around the reef, where they remain to this day.

Julian Felipe is part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone and continental shelf, located northeast of Pagkakaisa Banks and Reefs or 175 nautical miles west of Bataraza, Palawan in the West Philippine Sea.

The week before the Coast Guard report, on Feb. 28, the first batch of Sinovac vaccines—600,000 doses—arrived in the Philippines. Yesterday, March 23, the country received another 400,000 doses of donated Sinovac, a vaccine whose 50.4% efficacy has been in question since after its trials in Brazil in January.

2016 legal victory in West Philippine Sea dispute

Philippine Star’s July 13, 2016 front page after the international arbitration’s judgement came out in favor of the Philippines.

On Jan. 22, 2013, the Philippines submitted its dispute with China over Spratly islands to international arbitration under Annex VII of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

The Philippines argued that it had sovereign rights and jurisdiction over all waters within the nine-dash line.

On July 12, 2016, the Arbitral Tribunal in the South China Sea Arbitration (The Republic of the Philippines v. The People’s Republic of China) issued a unanimous decision favoring the Philippines.

China rejected the ruling.

Duterte said he would set aside the ruling. “In the play of politics, now, I will set aside the arbitral ruling. I will not impose anything on China,” he said when asked about China’s construction of anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems, on all seven of the artificial islands it had built in the South China Sea.

On another occasion, in October 2016, he called the judgement a piece of paper.”

At the same time last year, 2020, they also parked hundreds of their ships in Julian Felipe Reef. The way I look at it, it’s a prelude to occupying the reef just like what they did to Mischief Reef in 1995.

Former Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, under whose leadership the territorial dispute with China was lodged and won, wrote on March 2, 2021, “When we decided to go to arbitration, the Philippines was fulfilling one of its most solemn duties, which is to settle international disputes peacefully…

“With an assertiveness that is growing with every passing day, China is preventing us from carrying out even the most basic exploration and exploitation activities in areas where only the Philippines can possibly have rights.

“ Until now, China is failing to respect its obligations under international law, specifically UNCLOS. It continues to interfere with the Philippines’ sovereign duty to promote the social progress of our people and our efforts to achieve a better standard of life for all Filipinos.

“ China is not just interfering with the progress of the Filipino people; China’s unilateral actions and the atmosphere of intimidation they have created are also trampling upon the rights and interests of the peoples of Southeast Asia and beyond.”

Del Rosario, former Ombudswoman Conchita Carpio-Morales and Antonio Carpio have submitted a communication to the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court “to show that Chinese President Xi Jinping and other Chinese officials committed crimes against humanity by causing the near permanent destruction of the marine environment of the South China Sea which will result in a disastrous food crisis in the region.”

‘Duterte’s love for Xi Jin Ping not reciprocated’

Justice Carpio has long advocated for Philippine sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea. On Headstart today, he reiterated that China’s incursion in Julian Felipe Reef is not the first time and that China is lying about why its vessels are there. “President Duterte from the very start of his administration has befriended China, and has considered China his best friend. In fact he said, ‘I love Xi Jin Ping’ but that love has not been reciprocated.”

He pointed out that China, in fact, has seized Sandy Cay, which is a sandbar within our territorial sea in Pagasa island, saying China has sent hundreds of territorial ships to swarm around Pagasa island.

Duterte and Jinping

On Sandy Cay, Duterte said on Aug. 21, 2017, “Why should I defend a sandbar and kill the Filipinos because of a sandbar?"

Three months later, on Nov. 8, 2017, Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that Duterte ordered the Philippines to pull out of the newly formed sandbar because the Chinese complained. The government had brought people there, which lies 2.5 nautical miles from Pag-asa island, “to put up shelters for Filipino fishermen.”

Lorenzana said,“We tried to put some structures in one of the sandbars near our island and the Chinese reacted. They complained that we are occupying a new feature. "The  President came to know about this and he said, ‘Let's pull out.’”

With Chinese vessels moored in Julian Felipe Reef, according to Justice Carpio, it may also fall into China’s control as did Mischief island and Sandy Cay.

Our maritime zones are important. They’re vital to our survival. We can get those vaccines from other sources. We don’t have to rely on China.

“Now China has sent 220 maritime militia vessels to park in Julian Felipe Reef. They cannot do that because while they can exercise the right of navigation, they cannot just sit there, park there because that is not their exclusive economic zone. There is no storm, they were saying that they took shelter because of a storm but no storm was anywhere near Felipe Reef.

“At the same time last year, 2020, they also parked hundreds of their ships in Julian Felipe Reef. The way I look at it, it’s a prelude to occupying the reef just like what they did to Mischief Reef in 1995. They said they just built a fishermen’s shelter in Mischief Reef—now it’s their air and naval base. They call it their Pearl Harbor in the South China Sea.”

Carpio said he’s particularly worried that China will start building in Julian Felipe as they did in Mischief Reef in 1995.

“That’s been China’s playbook. We cannot go back to Sandy Cay now because they have surrounded it with their militia vessels. They have actually seized control of it—the first geologic feature China seized under the Duterte administration.”

Despite all the COVID loans and funds since March 2020 when Duterte was granted emergency powers by Congress, and despite government requiring “donations” that match the number of vaccines private companies are buying from their own pockets for their own employees, our vaccination rollout has been slow compared with our neighboring countries.

And at what cost is all this “excellent” response?

We now have P127 billion of new debts—and 200 Chinese vessels in our waters.