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China tests its soft power in Southeast Asia amid coronavirus outbreak

Updated

By Reuters

China called for solidarity on Thursday in a special meeting to discuss the coronavirus outbreak with Southeast Asian nations as it faces criticism for its handling of the outbreak elsewhere.

The hastily called summit in Laos signaled China is seeking support from smaller neighbors into which it has poured billions of dollars in infrastructure and investment in recent years.

Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers pose during an emergency meeting with China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi on the coronavirus outbreak in Vientiane, Laos February 20, 2020. (REUTERS/Phoonsab Thevongsa NO RESALES NO ARCHIVES/MANILA BULLETIN)

Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) foreign ministers pose during an emergency meeting with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi on the coronavirus outbreak in Vientiane, Laos February 20, 2020. (REUTERS/Phoonsab Thevongsa NO RESALES NO ARCHIVES/MANILA BULLETIN)

China’s foreign minister urged Singapore to ease its travel ban on Chinese visitors, while other nations are likely to face similar pressure at the meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

“China is promoting a message of friendships in ASEAN to counter the attack from the West that it has been handling the outbreak poorly,” said Alfred M. Wu, Associate Professor in Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at National University of Singapore.

Beijing has been criticized for its handling of the outbreak of the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, which emerged from the city of Wuhan in Hubei province in recent months and killed at least 2,000.

Travel restrictions to prevent the spread of the disease, have idled much of the world’s second-largest economy and choked key elements of President Xi Jinping’s signature Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of railways, ports and highways.

Officials attending bilateral meetings on Wednesday night were asked not to wear masks, but hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes were available.

On Thursday, ASEAN foreign ministers joined hands with Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and shouted “Stay strong, Wuhan!” Stay strong, China! Stay strong, ASEAN!”

Countries’ responses to the coronavirus have become “a litmus test for friendship,” said Tom Baxter, an independent researcher and co-editor of Panda Paw Dragon Claw website, which writes about China’s influence overseas.

From Singapore’s outright ban to the open-door practices of Beijing’s close ally Cambodia, policies on travel from China have varied among the 10 ASEAN nations.

Even as the meeting kicked off, Thailand on Thursday issued a travel advisory urging citizens to avoid non-essential travel to China and advised those already there to leave, hinting that flights to China could be further restricted.

In a Wednesday night meeting with Singapore’s foreign minister, Vivian Balakrishnan, Wang said 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.

In remarks made during a welcome dinner on Wednesday evening, Wang thanked countries individually for their shows of support during the outbreak, according to a statement from China’s foreign ministry.

He was quoted by the Chinese foreign ministry as saying support from ASEAN countries and other international friend “made us feel that this winter is not that cold and spring is coming”.

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