Rodrigo Duterte has mastered the art of political propaganda to bolster his own image, a tested formula that helped him win the 2016 presidential elections.
Last year, he threatened to go to war with Canada if Ottawa did not take back the tons of garbage it had shipped to the Philippines. The Canadians complied, but not out of fear toward a pony strongman from a small, poor Southeast Asian country, which had relied heavily on Western aid.
Diplomatic sources said Canada and the Philippines, which had been negotiating for many months about the garbage issue, had reached an agreement to ship back the trash to Vancouver even before Duterte issued his veiled threats.
When Canada pulled out the container vans containing the trash, Duterte appeared to be a tough leader who made a wealthy and more powerful Western country kneel down before him.
For his supporters, who knew nothing about the diplomatic deal between Manila and Ottawa, it was an achievement for the leader who had stood up against Western powers criticizing his human rights record.
It was a masterful propaganda coup for the populist leader who wanted to sustain and increase his popularity.
During a weekend meeting with the government’s task force to address the coronavirus disease (Covid-19) pandemic, he once more displayed braggadocio, threatening the world’s number one economy and military power if it fails to deliver 20 million doses of vaccines against the virus.
“Kung hindi sila maka-deliver ng maski na lang a minimum of mga 20 million vaccines, ah they better get out. No vaccine, no stay here,” Duterte said in the meeting, referring to the United States.
He said the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA), which he had terminated in February 2020 after the US blacklisted his former national police chief and political ally, was about to end this year after two six-month suspensions.
“Pag hindi ako pumayag, aalis talaga sila,” he said. “Loko-loko talaga itong Amerikano. Bigay ka, bigay. Wala na maraming ingay.”
The leader’s statement was greeted with loud applause and laughter from his sycophants.
But this could be another bluff, a classic Duterte propaganda move to divert public attention from the government’s incompetence and failure to make an advance procurement of American-developed vaccines.
In reality, Washington could not guarantee any shipment of the vaccines to Manila because these are produced by private pharmaceutical companies that do business with sovereign governments interested in procuring the shots.
The American government has also ordered hundreds of millions of vaccines for their own citizens and it would be out of its generosity if it wanted share the doses to allies and partners that could not afford to buy them.
Before Pfizer and Moderna made announcements about the market availability of their vaccines, Duterte has been counting on China to make deliveries.
However, Chinese state-owned pharmaceutical companies have not made public any data from Phase 3 human trials in China and other countries.
There were scant details about Sinovac’s data based on human trials in Brazil, Turkey and the Middle East. Sinopharm also has yet to make public results from its own clinical and human trials, although there were reports it has an efficacy rating of more than 80 percent, higher than Sinovac’s 50 percent in Brazil.
But the real problem is not where to buy the vaccines. Duterte has not allocated enough funds in the 2021 national budget for the procurement of doses, his only solution to the national health crisis that has ruined the country’s economy, pushed millions out of jobs and raised the country’s poverty index.
He has placed so much faith in his friendship with China’s Xi Jinping and in his finance secretary’s plan to borrow money from multilateral lending institutions, like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank, to finance vaccine procurement.
Retired general Carlito Galvez, the vaccine czar, said the government has been talking with vaccine-makers and could clinch a deal before the end of the year for the delivery of 60 millions of doses by the second or third quarter next year.
But, without the funds to show, there are doubts these deals will go through. There were no loans negotiated with WB and ADB either to support the vaccine procurement.
In short, the government would likely rely on the private sector to do the heavy lifting to keep Duterte afloat and salvage his image, which has been slowly slipping due to months of inept and slow pandemic response.
As Filipinos are losing hope a vaccine will be made available as soon as possible, Duterte has found in the United States as a trump card to acquire the vaccine.
He has made the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) a bargaining chip to force the United States to deliver vaccines for free, perhaps, in exchange for the continued US military presence in the country.
Duterte knew how important the country was for the US military in its effort to counter China’s creeping influence in the Indo-Pacific region, particularly in the South China Sea.
But the VFA is an agreement that provides a legal framework for the continued stay of American soldiers and marines for training and exercise, which they have been doing under the annual Balikatan and other large-scale war games and small-unit cross-training in counter-terrorism and conventional warfare.
Perhaps, the Philippines can invoke humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) to stretch the military-to-military cooperation between the two countries.
Like the trash deal with Canada, the Philippines, through its diplomats, could have secured an agreement with the US State Department under Mike Pompeo to send vaccines to the country.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. had revealed an earlier deal, as far back as July, about the shipment of 10 million doses of Pfizer vaccines but somebody in Duterte’s Cabinet bungled the planned shipment.
However, Locsin did not give a detailed explanation on how the country was able to secure the Pfizer vaccines and whether the US was providing the doses under a development aid program and not necessarily as military assistance under the 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty.
In his latest posts in Twitter, Locsin said the Philippine ambassador to the United States, Jose Manuel “Babe” Romualdez, was able to secure a deal for Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
It was unclear how the vaccines were secured, whether it involved paying the American pharmaceutical companies, and what the exact role of the US government was in the agreement.
If Secretary Locsin’s tweets are true, then Duterte’s threat could be another of his antics to appear as a tough leader who could bend the mighty Americans. It could be another show off to his adoring supporters who knew nothing of the diplomatic deals made behind public view.
However, if Locsin’s tweets are not true, he could be in a collision course with the president and his pro-China rah-rah boys, as the former journalist and lawmaker has exposed himself as a staunch defender of American interests in the country.
Locsin has dangerously tilted the scales back to Washington in his more than two years as foreign affairs secretary, openly defying his boss who had gone out of his way to warm relations with US archrival Russia and emerging foe China.
In previous interviews, he had expressed his love for the Americans, wanting US troops to permanently stay in the southern Philippines to help in the fight against Islamist militants.
He even proposed to enter into an executive agreement with Washington to ensure US presence outside of the existing military-to-military deals, like the VFA and Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement (EDCA).
Locsin said the Philippines needed the United States to keep steady the balance of power in the region as well as honor the country’s commitment as a reliable ally under the Mutual Defense Treaty.
If there was really a deal with Pfizer and Moderna, no one knows, as details about the vaccine shipment remained murky. Locsin might be bluffing as well to keep the Americans’ interest.
He will be busy in the coming weeks and months to convince the president not to terminate the VFA for good, arguing that Washington, under President Donald Trump, was able to deliver more than $60 million worth of military hardware in the last two months and more than a billion pesos worth of Covid-19 equipment and personal protection equipment (PPEs) since the outbreak early this year.
It’s more than enough assistance compared with token donations from China, which earned more from the Philippine government’s procurement of PPEs and test kits.
Duterte has, in fact, promoted the use of Sinopharm vaccines, available in the black market, confirming that some people had taken the shots even without the government’s official approval.
If Duterte took the shots, which he had hinted, he might have violated his government’s own laws. He also put himself in grave danger if there would be side effects, since all vaccines in the market were developed in less than a year and no one really knows the efficacy and safety of the shots.
If the president will insist on getting the Chinese-developed vaccines with lesser efficacy than the Western-developed shots, Locsin will surely see trouble on the horizon.
How long could Locsin continue to defend US interests? Only time can tell but Duterte can actually cash in on the US in his own propaganda to salvage his tough image.