The Philippines: A Target of Vaccine Diplomacy
Updated: Sep 9
Photo Source: Wikipedia
As COVID-19 virus spreads and turns into a global pandemic, nations raced to create a vaccine to mitigate its spread and lower the risks of being infected. This paved the way for vaccine diplomacy, creating opportunities for nations to build their foreign policies and create new partnerships. Vaccine diplomacy is a form of soft power where countries can use vaccines as bargaining chips to leverage and form alliances with their recipient nations. Vaccines have been developed by major powers such as China, the United States, the United Kingdom, and Russia. The Philippines is not exempted as a target of this style of diplomacy from these powerful countries.
The UK and the U.S. were the first vaccines to be approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to acquire Emergency Use Authorization. However, both countries are also plagued with a rising number of infected citizens. It is natural and expected for them to prioritize and address domestic national security first before sending vaccine supplies abroad. The downside is that if the majority of western countries were to start securing or hoarding the vaccines for themselves, the notion of vaccine egotism is created. Some countries also insisted that private pharmaceutical companies charge steep license fees for their patents on new vaccines.
This allowed China to fill in the gaps in vaccine supply in many countries, globally. The vaccine developed by China has been shipped to more than eighty (80) countries, fifty-three (53) of these countries are developing nations and received the vaccine for free. By doing so, China has framed itself to be the solution to the pandemic. China’s vaccine diplomacy was able to stand against the ‘me first’ policies of the U.S and UK amassing the vaccine doses to themselves.
An “America first, Europe first” narrative, and the low supply, and the higher price they want to enforce made the access to vaccines even harder for developing countries. This means that the Philippines faced not only the rapid increase of people being infected by COVID-19, but was also limited by financial constraints that forced the country to opt for less proven and cheap alternatives to address its domestic health crisis.
The Philippines have initially received three point nine (3.9) million vaccines from China. More recently, the country has pre-ordered twenty-five (25) million doses of vaccine produced by the private Chinese company Sinovac. The unprecedented number of infected in the country have made the Philippines desperate to contain the virus spread and gambled on the less proven but more affordable vaccine of China. On the other hand, China is also willing to rely on the Philippine vaccine market to prove that their vaccines are effective. During Phase Three (3) trials, China has tested their vaccine on volunteers from Brazil, Turkey, and Indonesia, however, regulators have not yet approved the vaccine. Critics have been asking for more transparency of the drug trial results from China. It is therefore clear that in their vaccine deal, both countries are taking risks and aim to benefit from the procurement of China-made vaccines.
Even with China’s success in being able to cover the global vaccine supplies, many countries still prefer vaccines made by the U.S. and other European countries. Vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna have been studied to yield a higher efficacy rate of ninety-five percent (95%) against COVID-19 and its other variants. However, access to these vaccines have proven to be difficult, especially for developing nations such as the Philippines which has acquired, initially, over three point two (3.2) million of vaccines from the U.S., and over one million (1) vaccines from Japan only through donations.
Despite the emphasis and the call for solidarity done by President Duterte during his speech in the 37th ASEAN Summit, vaccine supply is still gaping and hard to access. This means that in order for developing countries to acquire vaccines at a faster rate, small countries like the Philippines have to rely on their friendly relations and political allies who have the capacity to produce vaccines. Recently, President Duterte thanked the U.S. for the vaccines that are donated by the Biden administration. The Philippines have used its agreements and relationship with other countries to vouch for vaccine supply from its allies in order to allow for more vaccines to pour into the country. Countries such as Russia gave their Sputnik V vaccine to the Philippines to aid its friend and the President said that this help coming from Russia is free. The European Union has also donated two point three (2.3) million euros to the Philippines in order to help the country suppress and control the spread of COVID-19. Furthermore, the United Kingdom has also donated four hundred fifteen thousand (415,000) AstraZeneca vaccines to the Philippines last July.
In the face of China’s ‘friendly’ framing in the international scene, it will be prudent to keep in mind that with geopolitics involved, there will always be hidden interests and political agendas . China’s ‘in kind’ donations may later on be used as leverage for countries to agree to their terms in future endeavors. Despite the good relationship between China and the Philippines, claims in the West Philippine Sea may be jeopardized if the Philippines is to rely solely on China donated and procured vaccines.
Certainly, vaccine diplomacy is new and multi-faceted. Donations from different countries are pouring in to aid us in suppressing this global pandemic. Vietnam was successful in establishing a working group that focuses on Covid-19 suppression and treatment. With the growing number of vaccine donations the Philippine government must likewise establish a working group that would manage these donations; to focus on the distribution, drug treatment, and prevention of COVID-19. This would facilitate a more systematic distribution thus avoiding unnecessary delays and other problems regarding vaccination.
Trudging this new field of diplomacy has created a new arena of global power competition. Some have used the pandemic to cast distrust and blame in order to build trust and partnership with their target countries, the Philippines is no exception in this battle. Building good relationships and partnerships with other nations is vital for the Philippines to overcome the pandemic. As a developing country, we have limited options and we cannot help but bargain and rely on our partnerships with other countries in order to ensure access to vaccines and supply the demand in the country. However, it would still be best if the Philippines remains wary and cautious in accepting aid from countries that may soon call in these ‘favors’ and cost our country’s territories in the future. After all, these are still states that have their own interests and agendas to satisfy.
Carol Largo is a fourth year student of Ateneo de Naga University, currently taking up Philosophy major in Foreign Service and International Relations. She is from Iriga City, Camarines Sur, Philippines. She hopes to work for the Department of Foreign Affairs and serve her country as a diplomat in the future.