China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi will join an emergency meeting of his ASEAN counterparts on Thursday to discuss the measures taken by Beijing to contain the coronavirus outbreak, officials from the 10-nation bloc have said.
It will be the first major multilateral meeting seeking to coordinate a response to a crisis that public health experts say could drag on for months.
The scheduled meeting follows a concerted effort in recent days by leading Chinese diplomats to fend off criticism that the central government had concealed information and was slow to react to the public health emergency.
Most of the more than 70,000 infections and 1,770 deaths recorded worldwide have occurred in China.
ASEAN officials and Beijing’s foreign ministry confirmed on Monday that the emergency meeting would take place, following reports last week that it was being planned.
Malaysia’s Foreign Minister Saifuddin Abdullah on Sunday said the meeting will allow all 10 member states to share their “views and experiences” on the virus. “Within ASEAN we believe China can and will overcome the crisis,” he told local media at a community event in the eastern Malaysian state of Kelantan.
The 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers last met in the middle of January for a prearranged retreat in Vietnam.
Thursday’s emergency meeting will be held in the Laotian capital of Vientiane, where Wang and his counterparts from the five countries in the Lancang Mekong Cooperation initiative – a Beijing-backed development drive for the Mekong River – were already set to meet.
Wang’s participation in ASEAN’s emergency meeting follows separate bilateral meetings he held over the weekend with the foreign ministers of Japan and South Korea on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference in Germany.
In both meetings the ministers conveyed to Wang their support for Beijing’s efforts to contain Covid-19 – as the pneumonia-like disease caused by the virus is known – their ministries said.
Also on the sidelines of the conference, Wang addressed the virus outbreak in an interview with Reuters. He said that China was facing a deep challenge but criticised some countries for their “overreaction” that he said “triggered unnecessary panic”.
Other Chinese diplomats including Cui Tiankai, the ambassador in Washington, and Zhang Jun, Beijing’s permanent representative to the United Nations, have made similar arguments in recent comments to the media as they battled claims that the central government was not being transparent about the epidemic.
Zi Yang, a Singapore-based analyst of Chinese foreign policy at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said Thursday’s meeting is likely to be used by Wang “to reassure ASEAN counterparts and send the message that China has everything under control, especially in a time when there are simmering doubts regarding official Chinese narratives on Covid-19 containment”.
Cheng Xiaohe, an associate professor of international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University, said it was likely that all parties at the meeting will “demonstrate their willingness to promote co-operation in contagious disease-related research, including on vaccine development and drug production”.
Observers are also parsing whether China’s relations with its neighbours will be affected by the travel restrictions imposed by some in a bid to prevent the virus from spreading on their shores.
“Wang will seek [ASEAN ministers’] support in… early resumption of flights, tourism and other economic activities,” Cheng said.
Japan, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia and Australia are among those with the most stringent controls, virtually barring entry to Chinese citizens based in mainland China.
On the other end of the spectrum are the likes of Pakistan and Cambodia – both close China allies who are heavily dependent on Beijing’s economic largesse and have refrained from imposing tough travel restrictions on Chinese nationals.
When Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen flew to Beijing in early February as a show of solidarity, Chinese President Xi Jinping declared the Southeast Asian country “a friend indeed”, according to Communist Party mouthpiece Xinhua.
Malaysia also earned China’s thanks by electing to only impose a targeted travel ban on Chinese nationals who are from parts of the mainland currently under lockdown.
In a 30-minute phone call with Malaysian Prime Mahathir Mohamad last week, Xi described the nonagenarian leader as an “old friend of the Chinese people”, the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement.
Singaporean officials, meanwhile, have repeatedly sought to convey solidarity with Beijing even as the country imposed restrictions on incoming travellers from China that are on par with the tough rules imposed by the likes of the US.
While the city state has not faced public reproach from Chinese officials, The Wall Street Journal last week reported that Singapore’s ambassador in Beijing was summoned by the Chinese foreign ministry over the new restrictions.
The US newspaper said diplomats from “a number of Asian and Western embassies” were also summoned for similar reasons.
Yang, the Singapore-based analyst, said the ASEAN foreign ministers were likely to voice their support for Beijing at Thursday’s meeting “particularly due to the fact that a number of ASEAN states have enacted restrictive measures on travellers from China that have earned Chinese displeasure”.
“Thus the meeting could serve as a venue to mend ties and move forward,” Yang said.
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This article was first published in the South China Morning Post.