By Aie Balagtas See
China’s foreign minister wrapped up a Southeast Asian tour in Manila on Saturday, promising to donate half a million vaccine doses to a country that has none yet, and finalizing a deal to build a cargo railway linking two former U.S. military bases.
Wang Yi arrived in the Philippines on Friday after earlier in the week visiting Indonesia, a neighboring nation that has also clashed with China over overlapping territorial claims in the South China Sea but is now scrambling to procure vaccines and heal a pandemic-ravaged economy.
“The recovery of nations … sits on the back of stronger economies. China plays a very key role in reviving our region’s economy,” Duterte said during Wang’s courtesy call to the presidential palace in Manila.
Wang for his part announced that Beijing would donate 500,000 doses of COVID-19 vaccine to the Philippines, and spoke of “China’s determination to complete pending infrastructure projects,” according to a statement issued by Duterte’s office.
“This, as [Wang] announced the finalization of the Samal Island-Davao City Connector Project and the Subic-Clark Railway Project agreements this week,” it said.
The commercial contract for the 71-kilometer (44-mile) cargo railway is valued at U.S. $940 million, “the highest funded G2G project between the two countries,” Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Huang Xilian said in a statement announcing its signing.
The railway will connect Subic Bay Freeport Zone and Clark International Airport, former U.S. naval and air bases that have since been converted to civilian use and commercially developed.
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The two sides also this week announced a $402 million deal to build a 3.98-kilometer (2.5-mile), China-financed bridge connecting Duterte’s home town of Davao with the adjacent island of Samal, according to China’s Embassy and the Philippine Information Agency.
“As you said, COVID response and economic recovery will be the top two priorities for both of our countries,” Wang earlier told Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. through an interpreter, citing “a sustained and new momentum to our relationship.”
The two diplomats oversaw the signing of a technical cooperation agreement worth 3.72 billion pesos (77 million dollars) that would go to livelihood projects, infrastructure facilities and other items to be agreed upon by both parties in the future, according to Manila’s foreign department.
China has now made seven such grants to the Philippines since Duterte assumed office in 2016, and their total value is 24.16 billion pesos ($503 million).
“We are elated that despite the challenges of the pandemic, our high- level engagements have stayed on track,” Locsin said, adding that Wang’s trip – his third here – demonstrated “strong and manifold ties that bind the Philippines and China.”
But Locsin did touch on tensions over territorial competition in the South China Sea, while not mentioning the strategic waterway by name.
“With our two nations’ abiding interest in regional stability and the security of our maritime commons, it behooves us to show our ability to rise to the challenge of managing differences peacefully and in accordance with law, while making headway towards trust-building,” he said.
A driving force
Chinese vaccine developer Sinovac has committed to be among the first companies to ship vaccine to the Philippines, though the local food and drugs administration has yet to greenlight its application.
The Philippine FDA has however cleared the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, developed by American pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, for emergency use. But officials did not say when mass inoculations in the Philippines would start, how many doses of vaccine would be delivered, or when.
Nearly half a million people in the Philippines have been infected with the coronavirus and almost 10,000 have died of it since the pandemic began. The country has the second highest number of cases and deaths from COVID-19 in East Asia, next to neighboring Indonesia, according to data from Johns Hopkins University in the United States.
Indonesia is approaching a total caseload of 900,000 infections and has surpassed 25,700 deaths.
President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo met with Wang Yi on the same day the country launched its coronavirus vaccination campaign, with the Indonesian leader getting the first jab.
Indonesia, which is far ahead of the Philippines in procuring vaccines for its population, hosted Phase 3 clinical trials of Sinovac’s vaccine, and has approved it for emergency use after finding it 65 percent effective in preventing COVID-19.
As in the Philippines, in his talks with Indonesian officials, Wang focused on battling the pandemic and economic recovery, claiming that the nations had “turned the crisis into a driving force for East Asian cooperation,” according to statements issued by China’s Foreign Ministry.
The Chinese diplomat arrived in Indonesia on Jan. 12 and visited North Sumatra province, where he discussed investment plans in the tourism and technology sectors with chief investment minister Luhut Pandjaitan, who hails from that region.
He and Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi pledged to push for progress in devising “regional rules that are effective, substantive and consistent with international law, and jointly maintain peace and stability in the South China Sea,” a Chinese Foreign Ministry statement said.
Retno, for her part, urged China to address the plight of Indonesian sailors working on Chinese fishing boats, after allegations that they were subjected to slave-like conditions, and to help them get home after their contracts conclude.
At least 16 Indonesians have died while working on Chinese boats since late 2019, with labor activists and officials saying some of them were treated harshly.
“I convey my appreciation to the Chinese government for the cooperation extended regarding Indonesian seafarer cases,” Retno said at a joint press conference in Jakarta.
“I also highlighted several pending issues for their attention, among others repatriation of stranded Indonesian seafarers, settlement of workers’ rights, ensuring safe and conducive working conditions and law enforcement through mutual legal assistance,” she said.
Wang’s four-nation tour began in Myanmar, where he voiced support for peace talks with ethnic armed groups, and called for faster progress on major Chinese-led infrastructure projects, including those which once completed will link China’s Yunnan province to the Indian Ocean.
Wang was the first foreign minister to visit Myanmar since Nov. 8 elections returned Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) to office for a second five-year term.
He also visited Brunei, which holds the rotating chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2021, as China and the regional bloc mark the 30th anniversary of relations.
Ronna Nirmala in Jakarta and Jojo Riñoza in Dagupan, northern Philippines contributed to this report.