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Duterte: Philippines Grateful for Beijing's Vaccines, But Won't Stop Sea Patrols

2021-04-29 -- The Philippine president said Thursday he was grateful that Beijing has supplied his country with coronavirus vaccines amid a global shortage, but he would not withdraw patrols in Manila-claimed waters of the South China Sea because Chinese vessels had not left.

President Rodrigo Duterte also criticized Washington for what he claimed was a lack of U.S. support for Manila amid this latest standoff with Beijing in the contested waterway.

"China is a good friend. We owe them a debt of gratitude for the vaccines. So China, let it be known, is a good friend, and we do not want trouble with them, especially a war," Duterte said during a cabinet meeting late Wednesday, transcripts of which were released Thursday.

Bilateral tensions in the South China Sea have risen lately over Beijing's refusal to remove its ships and boats from Manila's exclusive economic zone.

The diplomatic spat between began after the Philippines said it had spotted some 240 Chinese vessels at Whitsun Reef in early March. Beijing also claims the reef in the Spratly Islands as part of its territories in the waterway.

China ignored the Philippines' demands for a pullout, prompting Manila to file daily diplomatic protests with Beijing, including on Thursday. Manila claims the Chinese ships are crewed by maritime militia.

The number of Chinese vessels in the Philippine EEZ stood at about 160 as of April 20, Manila said Wednesday.

The Philippine government said recently it was complementing its military patrols and drills in the sea with patrols by its coast guard, fisheries bureau and national police.

By deploying non-military patrols to protect and assist Filipino fishing boats, Manila hopes to avoid provoking a naval standoff with Beijing, officials had said.

Removing patrol boats is out of the question, Duterte said.

"There are things that are not really subject to a compromise, such as us pulling back [our patrols]. It's difficult. I hope they understand, but I have the interest of my country also to protect," the president said.

'Empty words'

Duterte on Wednesday also questioned Washington's resolve to help protect the Philippines, its long-time defense ally.

"[So] I can tell China, 'You know China, we can always call the Americans,'" Duterte said.

"But in so many instances, they [the Americans] are just about empty words …. That would have been the moment to show the world that they were with us by sending their superior ships. Why did they not do it?"

BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, called the U.S. Embassy in Manila for its comment on the issue, but did not immediately hear back.

In early April, the U.S. State Department said it was backing the Philippines in the dispute over the Chinese ships in the Philippine EEZ and would come to Manila's defense, if needed.

"As we have stated before, an armed attack against the Philippines armed forces, public vessels, or aircraft in the Pacific, including in the South China Sea, will trigger our obligations under the U.S.-Philippines Mutual Defense Treaty," Ned Price, the department's spokesman, told a press briefing on April 8.

Early this month, as the dispute was still unfolding between Manila and Beijing, the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group sailed into the South China Sea to carry out maritime strike exercises, anti-submarine operations, coordinated tactical training and other activities, according to the U.S. Navy.

Under the auspices of the 70-year-old treaty, the armed forces of the United States and the Philippines will come to each other's military aid in the event of an external attack on one of them.

Meanwhile, the Philippines has been relying heavily on China for COVID-19 vaccines, after other drug makers delayed deliveries of shipments.

According to Manila, China's state-owned Sinovac Biotech has sent the Philippines 3.5 million doses of its CoronaVac jabs, including one million doses that were given as a gift. The Philippines had earlier received 525,600 doses of AstraZeneca, all of which have been administered.

As of this week, only 1.5 million people had been vaccinated with their first of two shots, the government said. The Philippines' population is a little more than 108 million. Only 246,986 people have received the full vaccine dose.

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

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