Chinese supply of a COVID-19 vaccine to Indonesia and the Philippines is likely to strengthen Beijing’s image in those countries, despite current resentment of its expansion in the South China Sea, if the vaccines work, analysts say.
Both countries have moved to order vaccines made by Sinovac Biotech, a Beijing-based pharmaceutical company, according to Asian media reports and the company’s website. China’s official Xinhua News Agency in October had called it “crucial” to distribute vaccines “around the world, not just the wealthy nations.”
People in both countries resent Chinese expansion in the 3.5 million-square-kilometer South China Sea where sovereignty claims overlap. China, with Asia’s strongest military, has built up islands that the Philippines claims and passed ships through waters that Jakarta says fall within an Indonesian exclusive economic zone. The sea is prized for fisheries and undersea energy reserves.
China, keen to be seen as a good neighbor abroad and to minimize U.S. geopolitical influence, could gain favor in Southeast Asia's two biggest countries if the vaccines work, reach remote parts of each archipelago in due time and don’t cost too much, analysts say. Indonesia and the Philippines have a combined population of 375 million.
“If it turns out to be good, effective, safe, affordable, then I guess that might change to a certain extent the perceptions here,” said Aaron Rabena, research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation in Metro Manila. China, he said, wants to “make up for their distorted image.”
Filipinos, including some in the armed forces, have distrusted China since a 2012 standoff over Scarborough Shoal in the contested sea. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has sought to mend ties since he took office in 2016. He indicated last year that he would prioritize the Chinese vaccines along with possible shipments from Russia.
The Philippines was aiming as of mid-December to end negotiations with Sinovac to get 25 million doses by March.
For Indonesia, Sinovac has committed to supply a “bulk vaccine” so state-run vaccine maker PT Bio Farma can produce at least 40 million doses before March, the Chinese company says on its website. On December 6, Sinovac shipped 1.2 million doses to Jakarta for storage at a nearby PT Bio Farma warehouse, the Jakarta Post website reports.
Indonesia has placed “firm” orders for about 160 million vaccine doses, 140 million of which are manufactured by Sinovac Biotech, the Post added.
Anti-China sentiment flared up before the shipment and some Indonesians worry the vaccines will be unhealthy, said Paramita Supamijoto, an international relations lecturer at Bina Nusantara University in Jakarta.
“At the beginning, there was a big debate on why we need to get [vaccines] from China, and there was big distrust among the people, and this kind of anti-China sentiment is still very strong,” she said.
Indonesia’s Food and Drug Monitoring Agency plans to visit Sinovac facilities in Beijing to ensure “good manufacturing practice,” the Post says. Its report quotes PT Bio Farma officials defending an anticipated $13.57 price per dose.
The Chinese state-supervised Global Times news website said in November that leaders around Southeast Asia had lauded Chinese vaccines as "accessible and affordable."
It might be the “most suitable” one for Indonesia’s condition, Supamijoto said. People there are spread across 13,000 islands.
Duterte, though, may be holding out for U.S.-made Pfizer Inc. vaccines in case Sinovac’s remedy only prevents COVID-19 half the time, said Eduardo Araral, associate professor at the National University of Singapore's public policy school. Research in Brazil showed last month that Sinovac's product was at least 50% effective. Pfizer said in November its vaccine candidate was found to be more than 90% effective.
“I think Duterte is hedging that with a 50-50 rate, why would anyone choose the Sinovac if the Pfizer vaccine is also coming?” Araral said.
Duterte threatened late last month to go ahead with a long-threatened cancellation of the U.S. Visiting Forces Agreement -- which gives U.S. troops access to the Philippines with few restrictions -- if the United States can’t deliver at least 20 million vaccine doses, the PhilStar.com news website said Dec. 27.
His government said about a year ago it would cancel the 21-year-old pact, although that process has been suspended twice and analysts say Duterte wants to renegotiate the broader defense relationship with more focus on quelling armed rebel groups. The Philippines has looked to the United States as a key defense ally since the 1950s.
Although coronavirus caseloads in the Philippines have fallen since a peak in August, discovery of a virus variant from Britain prompted quarantine orders in Metro Manila and nine other parts of the country through Jan. 30. The Philippines has recorded about 474,000 Cases and more than 9,244 deaths.
Indonesia’s COVID-19 cases are still growing steadily. The country with Southeast Asia’s largest population reports around 743,000 cases and more than 22,000 deaths. Indonesia is also looking for vaccine sources outside China.