Duterte retained US military deal as 'concession' for vaccines

Mr Rodrigo Duterte had moved to end the 23-year-old military deal over US criticism related to his government's human-rights record. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MANILA (BLOOMBERG) - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte said US vaccine donations convinced him to keep a military deal between the two long-time allies that forms a key part of President Joe Biden's efforts to counter Chinese influence in the region.

At a late Monday (Aug 2) briefing, Mr Duterte said he agreed to continue the Visiting Forces Agreement with the US as a "concession" for donated coronavirus shots, including more than three million Moderna doses scheduled to arrive on Tuesday.

"It's just give and take," Mr Duterte said. "I'd like to thank president of the United States, Biden, the government and the people of America for not forgetting us. Do not forget us, because we share the same outlook on geopolitics, especially in South-east Asia."

Last year the Philippine leader moved to end the 23-year-old military deal over US criticism related to his government's human-rights record, part of a wider push by Mr Duterte to move closer to China during his five years in power.

But he kept delaying the official termination of the deal before finally agreeing to retain it during Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin's visit to Manila last week amid lingering tensions with Beijing in the South China Sea.

South-east Asia is a key battleground as Washington and Beijing seek greater geopolitical influence in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The US has vowed to boost vaccine distribution across the region as part of the so-called Quad grouping, while Beijing has already delivered around 350 million doses globally, including across South-east Asian partner countries of President Xi Jinping's signature Belt and Road Initiative.

The US has in recent months increased vaccine donations to South-east Asia, which has relied in part on Chinese shots to boost sluggish inoculations as the fast-spreading Delta variant fuels record daily virus cases across the region.

The US wants "to be seen as a trustworthy partner in the fight against Covid," a senior State Department official said at a separate briefing on Monday.

Without mentioning China, this person said the more than 20 million doses the US has donated to the region came with no strings attached.

"We provided these free of charge, and we don't want and don't expect anything in return," the official said. "Clearly, that's not been the case with vaccines that we've seen donated from other countries, and we want to make clear that we do not follow that - we do not follow that playbook."

Mr Duterte, in his Monday night briefing, also warned the US State Department to "be careful" after Democratic senators urged Mr Biden's government to condemn alleged human rights violations in the Philippines.

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