Duterte: We owe debt of gratitude to China

President Duterte said Filipinos owed a debt of gratitude to China for the vaccines it donated and sold to the country, but that did not mean he would yield Philippine sovereignty over the West Philippine Sea to Beijing.

Several lawmakers and government critics on Thursday said that contrary to Duterte’s statement, it is China that owed the Philippines after encroaching into the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and destroying marine resources in parts of the West Philippine Sea. They said the Philippines should not trade its sovereign rights for the Chinese aid.


“China is a good friend. We owe them a debt of gratitude—a lot, including our vaccines,” the President said during his national television appearance on Wednesday night.

“So China, let it be known, is a good friend, and we don’t want trouble with them, especially a war,” he said, again pushing his view that the only way the Philippines could get back reefs seized by the Chinese was through armed conflict.

After a two-month standoff in 2012, Philippine ships withdrew from Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal and the Chinese took control of a traditional fishing ground west of Zambales province that for generations had been open to Filipinos, Chinese and Vietnamese. (See related story on this page.)

China also started reclaiming land to build artificial islands at seven reefs within the country’s EEZ. Beijing has turned them into military outposts with airstrips, barracks, ports and missile silos.

Duterte lamented Beijing’s continued rejection of the arbitral award in 2016 that invalidated China’s sweeping claims to the South China Sea.

He blamed the administration of his predecessor, Benigno S. Aquino III, specifically then Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario, for the “retreat” from Panatag and the loss of other reefs to China.

Vaccine donations

While the maritime dispute continued to simmer even during the pandemic, China donated 1 million shots of COVID-19 vaccines to the Philippines and 2 million more to three of its partners in the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations—Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar—plus an undisclosed number of doses to Brunei.

China has also received orders from the Philippines for 25 million shots of the vaccine made by the Chinese company Sinovac Biotech, 2.5 million doses of which had been delivered.

The President was thankful for the vaccine donations but he said Manila would not back down in its maritime dispute with Beijing.


“I will say that there are some things in life which cannot be bargained and this (Philippine sovereignty) is one of them,” Duterte said. “Now, we will see what China will do despite our pleadings of peace to settle it.”

He said his predecessor should have told China during the 2012 standoff at Panatag that “we will stand our ground, we will not retreat, we will not get out of the West Philippine Sea because it’s ours.”

Reason to be thankful

Duterte ordered two Philippine ships at Panatag on Wednesday to remain in the area.

“I will say now, ‘Don’t leave,’ period,” he said. “Never mind if the Americans will help us or not. Let us not depend on them. They will not help us because if there will be a nuclear war, would they? No. But as for us, they (Chinese) will attack us. That is why I said, I’m stating it for the record: we do not want war with China.”

Sen. Risa Hontiveros said Filipinos were thankful that the President did not order troops and vessels to leave their posts.

“But he should take out of his mind that insisting on our sovereign rights as a country is tantamount to looking for war,” she said. “Please stop kneeling before China; please stand up for the Filipinos.”

Senate President Pro-Tempore Ralph Recto said Filipinos were grateful for China’s vaccine assistance but that had nothing to do with the country’s interests in the West Philippine Sea.

“Nevertheless, we did pay for it and we should not have a misplaced [debt of gratitude] to China,” he said.

Recto said China’s occupation of the Philippines’ EEZ had taken away the Filipinos’ ability to utilize marine resources and had destabilized the region when it built military outposts in the West Philippine Sea.

“No one wants trouble with China, only mutual respect,” he said.

Sen. Richard Gordon said the Philippine government should exhaust all legal and diplomatic means to assert the country’s rights and resolve the conflict peacefully. He slammed Beijing’s intrusion into the West Philippine Sea while posing as a friend.


Bayan Muna Rep. Ferdinand Gaite said Duterte’s statement was “traitorous” and his inaction against Chinese incursions was a “slow surrender” to Beijing.

“He is doublethinking and doublespeaking. One cannot strongly assert our sovereignty and at the same time consider as a dear friend, as someone you are greatly indebted to, those who blatantly trample on it,” he said.

The fishermen’s group Pambansang Lakas ng Kilusang Mamamalakaya ng Pilipinas (Pamalakaya) said the country’s sovereignty was “not collateral” for Chinese vaccines.

“We are not indebted to China; it’s them who owe us trillions due to massive destruction of corals and marine resources in the West Philippine Sea,” the group said.

The Philippines loses about P1.3 trillion annually due to China’s island-building, it said, citing an estimate of the marine destruction made by the scientist group Agham (Advocates of Science and Technology for the People).

Administration officials, including the head of the national vaccination program, Carlito Galvez Jr., earlier said the Philippines would not compromise its sovereignty for vaccines.

“The Chinese government is joining us in fighting against COVID-19. It’s a fight of humanity, and the issue over the West Philippine Sea is a different matter,” he said.

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. also said in a recent tweet that the vaccine donation was “unrelated” to the presence of the Chinese vessels at Julian Felipe (Whitsun) Reef, which was swarmed by more than 200 vessels belonging to China’s maritime militia last month.

It was in January during a meeting with Mr. Duterte at Malacañang that China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced Beijing’s first vaccine donation of 500,000 shots and a 500-million renminbi (P3.72-billion) grant to the Philippines for various livelihood and infrastructure projects, which might also be used to finance the Duterte administration’s COVID-19 response. —WITH REPORTS FROM MELVIN GASCON, JHESSET O. ENANO AND INQUIRER RESEARCH

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