U.S. warns China after South China Sea standoff with Philippines

(Reuters) – The United States on Friday warned China after a standoff in the South China Sea between China and the Philippines, saying it stood by Manila amid an “escalation that directly threatens regional peace and stability.”

Beijing “should not interfere with lawful Philippine activities in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone,” U.S. State Department Ned Price said in a statement.

On Thursday, the Philippines condemned “in strongest terms” the actions of three Chinese coast guard vessels that it said blocked and used water cannon on resupply boats headed towards a Philippine-occupied atoll in the South China Sea.

“The United States stands with our Philippine allies in upholding the rules-based international maritime order and reaffirms that an armed attack on Philippine public vessels in the South China Sea would invoke U.S. mutual defense commitments,” Price said.

“The United States strongly believes that PRC (People’s Republic of China) actions asserting its expansive and unlawful South China Sea maritime claims undermine peace and security in the region,” he added.

The incident came as U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping discussed a range of issues in a three-hour video call.

(Reporting by Akriti Sharma in Bengaluru and Susan Heavey in Washington; editing by Philippa Fletcher)

Cyclone Kompasu strikes Philippines, kills 9

MANILA (Reuters) – Nine people have been killed in the Philippines and 11 were missing on Tuesday due to floods and landslides caused by heavy rain from tropical cyclone Kompasu, the national disaster agency said.

Kompasu, with maximum sustained winds of 100 kilometers (62 miles) per hour, had absorbed remnants of an earlier cyclone before making landfall in the Philippines on Monday evening. Nearly 1,600 people were evacuated.

The disaster agency said it was verifying information from its regional units that reported four people killed in landslides in northern Benguet province and five killed in flash floods in Palawan, an island province in the country’s southwest.

Authorities were conducting search and rescue operations for 11 people missing mostly after landslides.

The Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,600 islands is hit by about 20 storms or typhoons annually, bringing heavy rains that trigger deadly landslides.

President Rodrigo Duterte was monitoring the government’s disaster response, his spokesperson, Harry Roque said on Tuesday.

Rescue personnel were at the scene, while power and water restoration and road clearing was ongoing, he added.

Kompasu, the 13th tropical storm to enter the Philippines, is expected to leave its territory on Tuesday, the state weather agency said.

(Reporting by Neil Jerome Morales; Editing by Martin Petty)

Overwhelmed Philippines hospitals hit by staff resignations

By Neil Jerome Morales and Karen Lema

MANILA (Reuters) -Exhausted by the COVID-19 workload, Loui quit her job as an intensive care unit nurse at a private hospital in the Philippines earlier this year.

The 30-year-old, who declined to give her last name for fear of reprisals, is among thousands of medical workers who have resigned during the pandemic, complaining of low pay and poor working conditions. Others have sought better jobs abroad.

“We can’t even take a proper day off because we are often called back to cover for other staff who were in quarantine or resigned,” said Loui, who was earning 20,000 pesos ($394) a month, including overtime, before she quit in March.

Hospitals fear the desertions have reached a critical point just as the Delta variant sends the number of cases soaring, as it has done elsewhere in Southeast Asia and worldwide.

The Private Hospitals Association of the Philippines (PHAPi)estimated that 40% of private hospital nurses resigned last year, but more followed new waves of infections this year. Public hospitals are facing similar challenges.

“If we want to increase bed capacity, that is easy, but the problem is the nursing component,” PHAPi’s president, Jose Rene de Grano, told Reuters.

More than a year and a half into the pandemic, reported coronavirus infections in the Philippines have soared to more than 1.75 million, the second highest in Southeast Asia, while deaths have exceeded 30,000.

‘DEMORALIZED’

Philippine Nurses Association President Melbert Reyes said he feared that hospitals could see even more nurses quit if their demands for better benefits and conditions went unmet.

“A lot of our nurses are demoralized,” Reyes told Reuters.

Union leaders in several hospitals in virus hot spots last week threatened to strike, while a nursing group warned that dozens could resign over unpaid allowance and benefits.

The state auditor last week flagged “deficiencies” involving 67.3 billion pesos, casting doubts on the regularity of related transactions in the health ministry’s pandemic response.

“But to the issue of whether the money has been stolen, that is pure bullshit,” Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte said in a weekly national address late on Monday.

The lure of better paying jobs abroad is also making it harder to fill nursing vacancies, said Donnel John Siason, president of the union at the University of Santo Tomas hospital.

This year nearly 7,000 nurses have moved abroad, including to the United States and Britain, joining hundreds of thousands of other Filipino nurses already working abroad.

Dave Santos, a 39-year old nurse at the Quezon City General Hospital, said he hoped to leave the Philippines too.

“We are giving our best,” said Santos, a father of three. “But we are just people who get tired and we have needs.”

($1 = 50.7150 Philippine pesos)

(Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Matthew Tostevin, Gareth Jones and Jonathan Oatis)

Philippines seeks U.S. help on data recorders for plane crash probe

MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines will send black boxes of a Lockheed C-130 aircraft that crashed at the weekend to the United States to seek expert help in opening and analyzing them, the military chief said on Wednesday.

The United States has committed to help extract information from the flight data and cockpit voice recorders that could shed light on the tragic incident that killed 53 people in the southern province of Jolo, Cirilito Sobejana said in a local television interview.

Sobejana said the Philippines has no such capability. He gave no timetable for when the U.S. experts could complete data extraction.

The aircraft was carrying troops bound for counter-insurgency operations when it crashed with 96 aboard, killing 53 in the country’s worst military air accident in nearly three decades. Among the dead were three civilians on the ground and the rest of the crew were injured.

Asked if bad weather or human error could be the reason for the incident, Sobejana said he would await the investigators’ official report.

“I told them to do it as fast as we can, but this should be deliberate,” he said. “We wanted to get the accurate information or the facts.”

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin offered additional support to Philippines counterpart Delfin Lorenzana when they spoke by phone on Tuesday to discuss the crash.

They also discussed critical medical evacuation support provided by U.S. personnel and other possible assistance, including victim identification, according to a statement released in Washington.

Sobejana said 16 of the casualties have been identified.

Some victims were burned beyond recognition, and authorities would rely on the dental records and forensic testing to identify them, he said.

(Reporting by Enrico Dela Cruz in Manila; Additional reporting by Eric Beech in Washington; Editing by Martin Petty)

Philippines again suspends scrapping of troop pact with U.S. amid China dispute

By Karen Lema and Idrees Ali

MANILA/WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Philippines has again suspended a decision to scrap a crucial agreement governing the U.S. troop presence in the country, its foreign minister said on Monday, amid continuing maritime pressure from China.

The Pentagon welcomed the announcement from Manila – the third suspension of the decision covering the two-decade-old Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) that had been due to expire in August – but analysts said there would be disappointment in both countries that it was not renewed.

Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin said the suspension would be for a further six months while President Rodrigo Duterte “studies, and both sides further address his concerns regarding, particular aspects of the agreement.”

The Philippines is a U.S. treaty ally and several military agreements are dependent on the VFA, which provides rules for the rotation of thousands of U.S. troops in and out of the Philippines for war drills and exercises.

Having the ability to rotate in troops is important not only for the defense of the Philippines, but strategically for the United States when it comes to countering China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the region.

“The Department welcomes the government of the Philippines’ decision to again suspend termination of the Visiting Forces Agreement,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.

“We value the Philippines as an equal, sovereign partner in our bilateral alliance. Our partnership contributes not only to the security of our two nations, but also strengthens the rules-based order that benefits all nations in the Indo-Pacific.”

MARITIME TENSIONS

Greg Poling, a maritime security expert at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said there would be frustration in Washington and most of the Philippine government.

“It isn’t the worst possible scenario, obviously, but Philippine officials were really signaling that they were confident they had reached a deal Duterte would get on board with, and instead everyone has to remain in limbo for at least another six months,” he said.

Poling said he did not think there was any substantive issue holding up an agreement.

“It is now as simple as Duterte doesn’t seem to want it, but everyone else does. If he won’t reverse course but he also doesn’t want to waste political capital on an unpopular decision heading into election season, then kicking the can down the road is his preferred option.”

Duterte told Washington last year he was cancelling the deal amid outrage over a senator and ally being denied a U.S. visa, but he has repeatedly suspended the expiration date.

The latest suspension comes at a time of continued tensions between Manila and Beijing over disputed waters in the South China Sea and a U.S. announcement last week that the Philippines would be among countries that would receive millions of COVID-19 vaccines it is donating.

Ties between Washington and its former colony have been complicated by Duterte’s rise to power in 2016 and his frequent condemnation of U.S. foreign policy and embrace of China, which has nevertheless continued to pressure his country’s maritime boundaries.

Manila has repeatedly protested what it calls the “illegal” and “threatening” presence of hundreds of Chinese “maritime militia” vessels inside its exclusive economic zone.

Jose Manuel Romualdez, Manila’s ambassador to Washington, told Reuters this month the VFA had been revamped to make it “acceptable” and “mutually beneficial” to both countries.

Manila has in the past been unhappy about issues such as a lack of jurisdiction over U.S. personnel who commit crimes in the Philippines and environmental damage during maritime drills.

(Reporting by Karen Lema in Manila; additional reporting by Idrees Ali and David Brunnstrom in Washington; Editing by Nick Macfie and Alex Richardson)

AstraZeneca commits to 1.8 million Thai vaccine doses amid supply anxiety

By Patpicha Tanakasempipat

BANGKOK (Reuters) – Drugmaker AstraZeneca said on Wednesday it would soon provide Thailand with 1.8 million doses of locally manufactured COVID-19 vaccine, the first of multiple batches this month, just days away from the launch of the country’s vaccination drive.

The joint announcement by AstraZeneca and Siam Bioscience, a firm owned by Thailand’s king, comes amid public anxiety about vaccine supplies, as the country suffers its most severe outbreak so far.

It did not say whether the Thai plant would make all 6 million doses that Thailand’s government has promised would be available this month.

The government’s mass immunization drive starts on Monday and relies almost entirely on its reserved 61 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine, most of which it said would come from Siam Bioscience, which is making vaccines for the first time.

Questions about Siam Bioscience meeting production targets are sensitive because King Maha Vajiralongkorn is its sole owner. Insulting Thailand’s monarchy is a crime punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

AstraZeneca has partnered with the Thai firm for the manufacture of 200 million doses for use in Southeast Asia, a region with low COVID-19 immunization rates that is seeing a strong resurgence of the virus.

Thailand is seeking 100 million doses of coronavirus vaccine this year in total.

Thai health minister Anutin Charnvirakul said on Wednesday the promised 6 million doses would come this month “as planned”, but specified no delivery dates or the number to be sourced locally.

Anutin also said Thailand will get an additional 11 million doses of Sinovac vaccines before August. Thailand has used the Chinese vaccine for most of its early inoculations of frontline workers.

“We will get AstraZeneca vaccine. It may come from wherever, but all AstraZeneca just the same. It could be made in Thailand or imported from overseas. It depends on AstraZeneca’s supply chain,” Anutin told reporters.

Siam Bioscience has not answered queries from Reuters on its production targets.

AstraZeneca said 1.8 million locally produced doses would be delivered by Monday, the first of multiple deliveries this month.

It said deliveries of Thai-made doses to other Southeast Asian countries would start in July.

The first delivery to the Philippines, which was promised 17 million doses, was cut from 1.3 to 1.17 million doses and delayed from late June to mid-July, a Philippine presidential advisor told Reuters on Tuesday, citing Thai production delays.

(Reporting by Patpicha Tanakasempipat; Additional reporting by Panarat Thepgumpanat and Panu Wongcha-um; Editing by Martin Petty)

Philippines flags ‘incursions’ by nearly 300 Chinese militia boats

MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines on Wednesday reported what it said were incursions into its exclusive economic zone (EEZ) by 287 maritime militia vessels from China, in a further sign of cracks reappearing in a relationship after a period of rapprochement.

“This incident along with continued illegal incursions of foreign vessels sighted near Philippine-held islands have been submitted to relevant agencies for the possible diplomatic actions,” the task force on the South China Sea said in a statement.

The Philippine foreign ministry has repeatedly complained to China in recent weeks about a “swarming and threatening presence” of Chinese vessels in its EEZ and has demanded they be withdrawn.

The Philippines has recently boosted its presence in the South China Sea through “sovereignty patrols,” in a show of defiance that critics say has been lacking under its pro-China president, Rodrigo Duterte, who has drawn domestic flak for his refusal to stand up to Beijing.

There was no immediate response to a request for comment from the Chinese embassy in Manila.

Experts say China’s fleet fishing boats and coastguard are central to its strategic ambitions in the South China Sea, maintaining a constant presence that complicates fishing and offshore energy activities by other coastal states.

Chinese officials have previously denied there are militia aboard its fishing boats.

Duterte caused a stir last week when he said a landmark 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration that went in the Philippines’ favor in a dispute with China was just a “piece of paper” that he could throw in the trash.

The tribunal also ruled that China’s claims to almost the entire South China Sea where about $3 trillion worth of ship-borne trade passes each year, had no legal basis.

Defense and security analyst Jose Antonio Custodio said Duterte’s comments “cancels-out” the tougher tone being taken with China by his top diplomats and defense chiefs.

“We don’t have unity in messaging,” Custodio said. “That is encouraging China’s actions.”

(Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Martin Petty)

Philippines tells China to mind its own business over maritime drills

MANILA (Reuters) -China has no business telling the Philippines what it can or cannot do within its waters, Manila’s defense ministry said on Wednesday, rejecting Beijing’s opposition to its ongoing coastguard exercises.

China claims almost the entire South China Sea, where about $3 trillion worth of ship-borne trade passes each year. In 2016, an arbitration tribunal in The Hague ruled that claim, which Beijing bases on its old maps, was inconsistent with international law.

Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told reporters that Beijing had “no authority or legal basis to prevent us from conducting these exercises” in the South China Sea because “their claims… have no basis”.

The Philippine coastguard and fisheries bureau started maritime exercises on Saturday inside the country’s 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), following an announcement of a boosting of its presence to counter the “threatening” presence of Chinese boats.

Responding to the exercises, China’s foreign ministry on Monday said the Philippines should “stop actions complicating the situation and escalating disputes”.

The Philippine defense ministry in a statement responded saying: “China has no business telling the Philippines what it can and cannot do.”

The Philippines has taken a tough tone in recent weeks over the lingering presence of hundreds of Chinese boats in its EEZ, reviving tensions that had eased due to President Rodrigo Duterte’s embrace of Beijing.

While the Philippines owed China a “huge debt” of gratitude for many things, including free COVID-19 vaccines, Duterte said on Wednesday he would not compromise on his country’s sovereignty in the South China Sea.

“So China, let it be known, is a good friend and we don’t want trouble with them, especially a war,” Duterte said in a late night address. “But there are things that are not really subject to a compromise … I hope they will understand but I have the interest of my country also to protect.”

On Wednesday, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin ordered the filing of another diplomatic protest, one of more than a dozen recently, this time over China’s rebuke.

“They can say what they want from the Chinese mainland; we continue to assert from our waters by right of international law what we won in The Hague. But we must not fail to protest,” Locsin said in a Tweet.

The exercises took place near a Philippine-held island in the disputed Spratly archipelago and at the heavily contested Scarborough Shoal, which the tribunal in 2016 said was a traditional fishing spot for several countries.

Lorenzana said it was China that was complicating matters by illegally occupying reefs it turned into artificial islands.

“It is they who are encroaching and should desist and leave,” he said.

(Reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Martin Petty and Alison Williams)

Philippines seeks to lift medical capacity as COVID-19 cases top one million

By Adrian Portugal and Neil Jerome Morales

MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines announced on Monday that its COVID-19 cases had exceeded one million, as the country sought to boost healthcare capacity to ease strains on hospitals and medical staff stretched by a second wave of infections.

The Philippines imposed a two-week lockdown of Manila and surrounding provinces late last month to try to stem a surge in cases blamed on more contagious COVID-19 variants.

But while daily infections have eased slightly they have still averaged more than 9,000, against 5,525 in March and 213 per day in April 2020, health ministry data showed.

In the capital region, an urban sprawl of 16 cities home to at least 13 million people, intensive care unit (ICU) capacity is above 70%, while 57% of isolation beds and 64% of ward beds for COVID-19 patients were occupied as of April 26.

In a bid to admit more patients, tents were turned into COVID-19 emergency rooms at the National Kidney Transplant Institute, a government hospital in Manila.

“All in all we waited for almost six hours It’s a long difficult wait,” COVID-19 patients Roel Galan told Reuters, speaking outside a makeshift emergency room.

Presidential Spokesman Harry Roque said on Monday 289 additional ICU beds would be made available in the capital.

To free up beds for severe COVID-19 patients, the Philippine Red Cross said on Monday it has set up field hospital tents and converted unused classrooms and buildings into quarantine facilities to care for patients with moderate and mild symptoms.

Dr. John Wong, a member of the government’s coronavirus task force’s data analytics team, said authorities must ramp up vaccinations to contain the virus and allow the economy to reopen.

He said 350,000 people needed to be vaccinated a day so the government could meet its target of immunizing 70 million, or a third of the country’s population, this year.

Since the Philippines started its vaccination drive in March, 1.5 million people have received a first dose of vaccine, with close to 231,000 people getting two doses, officials said.

The Philippines recorded 70 new deaths from COVID-19 on Monday bringing total fatalities to 16,853.

(Reporting by Adrian Protugal and Neil Jerome Morales; Writing by Karen Lema; Editing by Ed Davies)

Philippines to start clinical trials on ivermectin, other drugs for COVID-19

By Reuters Staff

MANILA (Reuters) – The Philippines will begin clinical trial of several drugs, including the anti-parasite medication ivermectin, in patients with COVID-19 to determine their efficacy in combatting the coronavirus, a senior government official said.

Some politicians in the Philippines have started promoting the use of ivermectin for coronavirus and given out free doses, although the country’s food and drugs regulator has cautioned against the use because of a lack of evidence for the drug as a treatment.

The clinical trial for ivermectin, which could last for six months, “will give us a more reliable estimate of the effects of invermectin as an anti-viral agent in mild and moderate (COVID-19) patients,” science and technology minister, Fortunato Dela Pena, said in a presentation late on Monday.

The Southeast Asian nation, which is facing one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in Asia, is battling a renewed surge in infections, with its vaccination drive on reaching 1.3 million people out of its more than 108 million population.

Ivermectin tablets have been approved for treating some worm infestations and for veterinary use in animals for parasites.

The World Health Organization last month recommended against using ivermectin in patients with COVID-19 except for clinical trials, because of a lack of data demonstrating its benefits.

The European Medicines Agency, U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and Merck, an ivermectin manufacturer, have also recommended against its use.

Dela Pena said the government has also approved the clinical trials of a new formulation of methylprednisolone, a steroid, and melatonin, as treatments for COVID-19.

The government will also start trials of an herbal supplement, derived from the native tawa-tawa plant that can fight dengue, he said, adding to ongoing tests using virgin coconut oil for severe COVID-19 patients.

“We are trying several (medications). They may not be vaccines but they could potentially speed up the recovery,” Dela Pena said.

The Philippines has recorded more than 945,000 COVID-19 cases and over 16,000 deaths, the second highest rates in Southeast Asia, next to Indonesia.