China is now trying to profiteer out of the COVID-19 Pandemic all over again. And this time around it is using vaccines in order to lure ex-partners that have swung away from it. Chinese President Xi Jinping has promised his Filipino counterpart Rodrigo Duterte that the Philippines will be prioritised as a “friendly neighbour” if and when China is able to develop a COVID-19 vaccine.
Needless to mention that Beijing hasn’t really been treating the Philippines amicably, or any Southeast Asian country with a significant stake in the South China Sea. Beijing has turned belligerent and has been bullying the Philippines and Vietnam in the South China Sea over the dispute of ownership of the Spratly Islands and the associated maritime benefits.
Beijing claims sovereignty on parts of the disputed waterways in the South China Sea that fall in the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) and the territorial waters of other countries like the Philippines.
Notwithstanding China’s illegal claims, the Duterte regime in Manila has maintained a working relationship with China in the past. But the Philippines finally felt constrained to draw a safe distance from China, as Beijing stepped up aggression in the strategic waterways.
Recently, the leaders of Vietnam and the Philippines sent a tough message against the “bullying behaviour” of China, during the 36th ASEAN summit held in Hanoi, Vietnam. They argued that some rogue nations, which do not abide by international rules, have increased activity in the South China Sea, without naming China.
Even before the latest remarks, Manila did take several steps which should have sent the warning bells ringing for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime in Beijing. For starters, Duterte suspended his plans to pull out of a military pact- the visiting forces agreement with the United States, a two-decades-old military pact between the two countries. The pact allows the US troops to be stationed in the Island country.
The revocation of the pact was suspended owing to ‘political developments in the region.’ Later, the Philippines Navy chief Rear Admiral Giovanni Carlo J. Bacordo also thanked the Indian Navy for its “invaluable alliance”, after India rescued a Philippines Navy ship after a fire broke out in its engine room.
The Philippines has also hinted at a collaboration with India in the domain of maritime safety. Rear Admiral Bacordo added, “We hope to expand this relationship as we seek better ways to make our seas safer and more secure for everyone…fervent wishes for your continuing success in leading the Indian Navy’s sustained resolve to be a global maritime force.”
For the Philippines, “make our seas safer” definitely meant countering Chinese aggression and expansionism in the South China Sea.
The Philippines has moved closer to China’s main rivals in the Indo-Pacific, viz. the United States and India. And by issuing a strong statement from the ASEAN summit, Manila has dropped hints of becoming a part of the larger Indo-Pacific alliance to contain Chinese aggression.
The sudden change in the Duterte administration’s perception of China has come as a surprise to many. It is no secret that many including Beijing used to perceive Duterte as a pro-China President.
At one time, Duterte was even ready to lose sight of the fact that in 2016, the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague had ruled in favour of the Philippines over the South China Sea disputes. The Filipino President had said that the South China Sea Arbitration case would “take the back seat” during talks with China.
However, China interprets benevolence as a weakness, rather than friendship. As a result thereof, Beijing has built artificial islands in the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone, claiming “historical maritime rights” under its nine-dash line claim whereby China encircles 90 per cent of the disputed waterways running around 2,000 kilometres away from mainland China.
Xi Jinping has realised that his belligerence against the Philippines in the South China Sea has backfired. Duterte has swung back towards the US and other Indo-Pacific allies in a major snub to the Paper Dragon. Therefore, the Chinese President wants to lure the Philippines all over again with the bait of delivering COVID-19 vaccines to the island country.
China’s ‘vaccine diplomacy’ might boomerang all over again. Beijing calls the Philippines a “friendly neighbour”, but the geopolitical dynamics haven’t changed- China still maintains artificial islands in the Philippines’ EEZ backed by asymmetric military power in China’s favour.