Coronavirus: China’s top diplomat Wang Yi urges world to resume links with Beijing, says it’s taken ‘forceful action’
Beijing’s top diplomat Wang Yi on Thursday called for countries to resume bilateral trade and people-to-people ties with China, saying it had taken “forceful action” to stem the spread of the deadly coronavirus.
These efforts were working, he said, referencing how China had reported its lowest number of new cases on Thursday since Wuhan city in Hubei province, the epicentre of the outbreak, was locked down on January 23.
“China is not only protecting its own people but also the rest of the world,” he said at a special Asean-China meeting held in Vientiane, Laos.
“The outbreak may have some impact on the Chinese economy, but such impact will only be temporary and limited,” Wang said.
“In light of the conditions on the ground, countries need to resume people-to-people ties and cooperation. We will turn challenges into opportunities,” he said. “While the outbreak is highly challenging, new industries have also emerged in the process.”
At a press conference after emergency talks with the foreign ministers of the 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), Wang said he and his counterparts had agreed to strengthen cooperation to combat the epidemic.Wang pledged that Beijing would share timely information on the epidemic, and said governments would explore setting up a China-Asean liaison mechanism to promote faster responses.
The Asean bloc is China’s second-largest trading partner after the European Union and travel restrictions introduced by some of its members have stalled projects under Beijing’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative to boost global trade and connectivity.
The coronavirus, which causes the pneumonia-like Covid-19 illness, has sickened at least 75,000 people and killed more than 2,100, mostly in mainland China. Japan, Singapore and South Korea have the highest number of cases outside mainland China.
More than 50 countries and territories have imposed travel bans and visa restrictions on China, with dozens of airlines suspending flights. The United States, Australia, Singapore, Indonesia and the Philippines have closed their borders to foreign travellers arriving from mainland China and urged their citizens not to travel there, with Philippine Airlines also cancelling flights there.
Malaysia has banned travellers from Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, and this week said it would temporarily block international cruise ships that had departed or transited from any ports in China.
Vietnam has closed its land border with China.
Thailand has not placed any travel restrictions on mainland Chinese tourists , a move that has sparked internal debates within its Cabinet. On Thursday it issued a travel advisory urging citizens to avoid non-essential travel to China.
In 2018, there were nearly 4,500 flights between China and Asean countries every week, with the number of mutual visits reaching 57 million.
Other contacts between China and Asean have been affected by the outbreak, Associated Press reported.
It said a meeting of Chinese and Asean diplomats negotiating a regional “code of conduct” to prevent clashes in the disputed South China Sea was postponed in Brunei early this month, according to two Southeast Asian diplomats.
The mood at the hastily called Thursday meeting, held before a scheduled meeting on the Beijing-backed Lancang-Mekong Cooperation development project, was upbeat with smiles and praise for China’s efforts.
But Asean leaders had in a statement last week expressed “serious concerns” over the impact of the virus that has disrupted trade and supply chains and slowed regional tourism, forcing countries to downgrade their growth forecasts for the year and plan stimulus measures to help businesses stay afloat.
On Wednesday evening Wang met the Philippine foreign secretary Teodoro Locsin Jnr and Singapore’s foreign minister Vivian Balakrishnan on the sidelines of a dinner event. Reuters reported that Wang told Balakrishnan that Beijing was worried about Singapore’s “restrictive measures”.
“Now that the epidemic has eased and the situation is under control, we hope that normal exchanges between the two countries can be resumed as soon as possible,” Wang told Balakrishnan.
Locsin, speaking at the start of the 90-minute long meeting on Thursday said apart from the health impacts of the Covid-19 disease, the outbreak had been “massively detrimental” to trade, travel, and the global economy.
While acknowledging China’s handling of the virus was “unprecedented” and “quick”, the Philippine minister stressed the need for collective efforts, saying that states hoped to work towards a “consolidated response”.
“Enemies such as Covid-19 demand action, compassion, and cooperation,” Locsin said. “Strengthening cooperation can help pave the way to subduing this enemy.”
After the meeting, Locsin told the South China Morning Post that the Chinese government had taken “completely rational” steps to contain the disease, and the conference was “basically to say thank you” to Beijing.
Apart from the broader initiatives mentioned by Wang, including a possible gathering of health ministers later this year, Locsin said day-to-day gestures showing solidarity with China were more important.
“Little gestures, such as when we took our people out of Wuhan back, we brought goods to China,” he said. “We did not have much but that’ll never be forgotten. People remember that.”
He echoed Wang’s point that it was important to strengthen people-to-people relations. He said one example of this was how he had lifted a travel ban so Filipinos working in Hong Kong could return to work.
Locsin also felt the coronavirus had not affected ties between China and Asean.
“What it has done is show that there are some things that are really beyond politics,” he said, adding that it would be “sickening” if people used the virus for political leverage. “Those who weaponise the [virus] for their geopolitical ends … they will be sorry.”
He added, however, that there were ongoing issues in the China-Asean relationship, such as long-standing territorial disputes in the South China Sea.
“[Issues] will be there but I think on both sides, they will see that these issues that are dividing us are not really worth as much as we can gain from plain, old friendship,” he said.
Some analysts said the China-Asean meeting was partly a public relations exercise.
Dylan Loh, assistant professor of social sciences at the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said the meeting could “be seen as a legitimacy building exercise where external actors take turns to vindicate and praise Chinese efforts in fighting the coronavirus”.
He said all member states were heavily dependent on China for trade, and in turn, Beijing expected political and diplomatic support for its virus containment efforts.
“It is of no surprise then, that Beijing has found succour in Southeast Asia, with countries in the region offering material, moral and rhetorical support even as these countries themselves have enacted travel restrictions of various kinds,” he said.
Loh said that besides hoping that formal travel restrictions on mainland Chinese travellers would ease, Beijing also hoped that governments of Southeast Asia would do more symbolically and rhetorically in shoring up confidence in Chinese efforts to contain the virus – particularly to their business communities.
“Asean countries are, of course, genuinely hoping that the impact of the virus is short, and that China will win the battle against the disease because they themselves stand to lose a lot from the fallout,” he said. “In that way, the emphasis on resuming people-to-people relations is an attempt to normalise and de-stigmatise Chinese business, tourists and citizens.”
Benjamin Ho, a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ China programme in Singapore, said the meeting was “first and foremost” to “project a favourable image of China given all the negative news we have seen the past month”.
“Most of the hardest hit countries this time are countries that have close ties with China [such as] Japan, South Korea, Singapore, as well as Asean more broadly. For people-to-people ties to resume, it is important for China to return to normalcy,” he said.
Zi Yang, a senior analyst who is in the same China programme as Ho, said the meeting gave China an opportunity to project confidence to the world, adding that it was in the interest of both parties to see the end of the Covid-19 outbreak.
“The central message from the China-Asean meeting today is unity in facing adversity and their desire to move forward together in containing Covid-19,” he said. “The Chinese economy, already under pressure, desperately needs a return to normalcy. Trade, investment, and travel flows must resume to previous levels as soon as possible, or else the Chinese government could face further uncertainty and instability.”
Meanwhile, the coronavirus also dominated the fifth Mekong-Lancang Cooperation (LMC) meeting, a Beijing-backed project with five Asean countries: Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam.
Wang said a shared response towards Covid-19 was one of the areas that partner nations needed to work on as the initiative moves from what he called a stage of “rapid expansion” to one of “comprehensive development”.
“We will also, from a longer-term perspective, discuss the establishment of a joint response mechanism to major public health emergencies and commit ourselves to enhance the medical and healthcare service for people in this region,” Wang said at a joint press conference.
China also said it was helping its downstream neighbours cope with a prolonged drought by releasing more water from its dams on the Mekong River, adding it would consider sharing information on hydrology to provide further assistance in the future.
A new economic report by Fitch Solutions Macro Research predicted the building of dams to harness hydropower on the Mekong River would reshape the economies of the countries along the waterway, fuelling long-term inflation and dependence on China.
The drought over the past year has severely hurt farming and fishing in Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar and Vietnam, and many blame China’s 11 dams on the upper Mekong – which China calls the Lancang River – as well as climate change.
Wang said a lack of rain was the main cause of the drought and said China had suffered from it too.
“China has overcome its own difficulty and increased water outflow from the Lancang River to help Mekong countries mitigate the drought,” Wang told the meeting. “We also agreed to strengthen such cooperation within the framework of LMC to ensure the rational and sustainable use of water resources.”