Philippines, China Agree to Boost Ties Amid COVID-19 Fight

Basilio Sepe and Luis Liwanag
200612-PH-CH-ties-620.JPG China’s President Xi Jinping (left) speaks with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during a banquet at the presidential palace in Manila, Nov. 20, 2018.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, have agreed to boost bilateral cooperation in the fight against the coronavirus disease sweeping the globe, the presidential palace in Manila said Friday.

The two leaders spoke by telephone for 38 minutes on Thursday, two days after Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana inaugurated a concrete pier on Pag-asa Island as part of infrastructure upgrades being built by Manila, which has occupied it since the 1970s. Pag-asa, known internationally as Thitu Island, is one of nine islands and atolls the Philippines claims in contested waters of the South China Sea, near where China has established military outposts.

“President Duterte stressed the need for cooperation in research trials for COVID-19 vaccine and treatments,” a statement from the Office of the President said, noting that he had also “emphasized the imperative of making vaccines accessible and affordable to all countries” including the Philippines.

Duterte spokesman Harry Roque said the call was “mutually agreed upon” when BenarNews asked him who had initiated the call. Roque emphasized that it was meant to mark the Philippines’ 122nd Independence Day on Friday.

The leaders had a “productive, open and focused telephone conversation” and committed to boost bilateral, regional and global efforts to combat COVID-19, according to the statement from the presidential office.

“For his part, President Xi reiterated China’s commitment to the international community to make any vaccine it develops a global public good and that as a friendly neighbor, China certainly considers the Philippines as a priority,” it said.

COVID-19 has killed 1,052 people across the Philippines and infected 24,787, according to the latest information released by the country’s Department of Health. Globally, more than 7.5 million people have been infected by COVID-19 and more than 422,000 have died as of Friday, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.

The presidential statement said Duterte received Xi’s full support in ensuring that the supply chain remained unbroken between both nations, particularly for medical supplies and equipment. Meanwhile, the Chinese leader also committed to promote “priority infrastructure cooperation projects” here.

“The two leaders likewise reviewed Philippines-China relations, noting the value of the friendship and the significantly increasing cooperation in wide areas of mutual interest,” the statement said.

They reiterated their “shared commitment” to boost strategic cooperation while resolving to “uphold peace, stability, prosperity and principles of international law, including the rule of law.”

That part of the statement appeared to allude to the South China Sea, a mineral-rich area and a potential powder keg in the region because of overlapping territorial claims. China, the Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan claim the whole sea or parts of it.

Lorenzana’s visit on Tuesday to Pag-asa, an island in the Spratly chain, occurred on the day marking the 45th anniversary of the formal opening of diplomatic ties between the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China.

In recent years, China has ignored an agreement among all claimants from taking action in the area that could inflame tensions, and has in fact, expanded areas it occupies. It also has taken over Scarborough Shoal, an area west of the Philippines’ main island of Luzon and a traditional fishing ground for Filipino fishermen.

Manila took China to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, which ruled in 2016 in the Philippines’ favor. Duterte never enforced the ruling and instead sought more friendly ties with China and Russia while distancing from traditional ally the United States.

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