China's handling of coronavirus isn't merely public emergency for Beijing, but also test of diplomatic ties with other nations

  • As China grapples with the outbreak of the pneumonia-like virus commonly known as coronavirus, Beijing is left to test its diplomatic relations with the world watching its every move

  • The WHO is currently playing mediator, between defending China's drastic measures to prevent the virus from spreading and China's critics, who say these measures are in violation of human rights.

  • The epidemic has given China’s ruling Communist Party one of its sternest challenges in years, constrained the world’s second-largest economy and triggered a purge of provincial bureaucrats

As China grapples with the outbreak of the coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, Beijing's diplomatic relations with the world are being put to the test. As per the latest updated figures on Wednesday, the total number of confirmed infected cases rose to 74,185, while the toll crossed the 2,000 mark, with 2,004 deaths reported so far. The outbreak is believed to have emerged from a Wuhan market where wildlife was traded illegally.

The coronavirus, which surfaced in a Chinese seafood and poultry market late last year, has spread to 24 countries, killing more than 2,000 and sickening tens of thousands of people in a matter of weeks. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has declared the situation a global health emergency.

The WHO is currently playing mediator, between defending China's drastic measures to prevent the virus from spreading and China's critics, who say these measures are in violation of human rights.

Journalists, scholars, and public health experts all over the world have pointed to the lack of data and public communication in the initial stage of the virus’s spread. They claim that Beijing did little to warn the public about the virus — especially before the Lunar Holidays — in which many Chinese people like to travel to celebrate the festival.

The epidemic has given China’s ruling Communist Party one of its sternest challenges in years, constrained the world’s second-largest economy and triggered a purge of provincial bureaucrats. Beijing has "removed" several senior officials over their handling of the coronavirus outbreak.

At least 48 million people were ordered on lockdown in central China with a travel ban covering 15 cities in the Hubei province, in an unprecedented measure to stop the spread of a coronavirus. They also cut off public transportation in the cities of Huanggang and Ezhou, both located around 75 kilometres east of Wuhan.

WHO defends China's drastic measures

The WHO had defended China's drastic measure to curb the spread of the disease following US claims of a lack of transparency in Beijing's response to the new coronavirus outbreak earlier this month.

 Chinas handling of coronavirus isnt merely public emergency for Beijing, but also test of diplomatic ties with other nations

A nurse prepares medicines for patients at Jinyintan Hospital in Wuhan. AP

Larry Kudlow, head of the US National Economic Council, had said: "We're a little disappointed in the lack of transparency coming from the Chinese". Kudlow also said that Chinese president Xi Jinping had assured US president Donald Trump that Beijing would accept US help, but "they won't let us".

But Michael Ryan, head of WHO's health emergencies programme, listed various ways in which he said China had collaborated with the international community.

"From our perspective, we have a government that's cooperating with us... I'm finding it hard to square that with Mr Kudlow's comments," Ryan told reporters in Geneva.

"But everyone is entitled to their opinion and everyone is entitled to suggest evidence for their opinion," he said.

US questions information coming out of China

The White House senior administration official told CNBC earlier this week that the US does “not have high confidence in the information coming out of China” regarding the count of coronavirus cases.

China has also reportedly had been reluctant to accept help from the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention and had suppressed information about the outbreak from scientists that it deems alarming.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang, hit back at his comments, saying Beijing has had an "open and transparent attitude" with the global community since the start of the epidemic, and maintained close communication and exchanged epidemic information with the US side in a "timely manner".

Ryan also told reporters that there may be US experts among the 12 members of a WHO-led international mission to China that is expected to begin over the weekend.  Asked whether there had been any mistakes made by Chinese authorities in their response to the outbreak, Ryan said: "It's not the time for us to start public recrimination."

South China Morning Post reports claim that local authorities have received the most flak so far, with the state media on the releasing a speech by Xi that shows the Chinese leader had been aware of the epidemic in early January – at least two weeks before the authorities admitted the virus could spread between humans. In the speech delivered early this month, Jinping had called on Chinese diplomats and propaganda officials to do more to communicate with other countries and gain international understanding and support.

China’s failure to respond to a US offer of help with the coronavirus fight has dealt another blow to diplomatic ties between the two countries.

China blanks out India from list of donor countries

In another diplomatic blunder, the puzzling lack of acknowledgement from China and mixed messages from Bejing over India's exclusion from the official list of countries that have either sent assistance or aid to Beijing to contain the epidemic created confusion between the two countries.

Representational image. AFP

China had said that it appreciates Prime Minister Narendra Modi's offer to provide support and help in its fight against the deadly coronavirus outbreak. AFP

Last week, China had said that it appreciates Prime Minister Narendra Modi's offer to provide support and help in its fight against the deadly coronavirus outbreak. China's foreign ministry had released a list of 57 countries that have provided medical supplies and assistance to Beijing to combat the epidemic. India, however, did not figure in the list.

During an online media briefing in Beijing, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said China welcomed and thanked the international community, the developing countries in particular, for their sincere support and friendly assistance.

"China mainly relies on its own strength to tackle the epidemic. We are confident and capable of doing this". The foreign ministry spokesperson named the countries that have provided help and also the nations that have announced that they will offer assistance.

In a written response to news agency PTI on why India did not figure in any of the lists, Geng only said China appreciates India's offer to help Beijing in the fight against the epidemic. On 9 February, Modi had written to Xi, offering China help in dealing with coronavirus. "We thank and appreciate India's support for China's fight against coronavirus. India's acts of goodwill fully demonstrates its friendship with China," Geng said.

Although, China later clarified its position, saying that it was touched by the kindness shown by India in helping Beijing tackle the outbreak, reports Hindustan Times

China-Indonesia relations

More than 50 countries or territories, including US, Japan, Australia, Italy and more have imposed travel restrictions and tightened visa requirements to contain the novel coronavirus, according to the International Air Transport Association, even though the WHO had explicitly advised against taking such drastic action. The global body said: “We do not recommend any travel or trade restriction based on the current information available, as per the anti-discrimination principles under Article 3 of the International Health Regulation.”

One such travel ban by Indonesia is set to backfire as its economy will get affected, claim experts. Beijing had warned Jakarta against imposing a travel ban and told it to abide by WHO's advice, but it fell to deaf ears. According to multiple reports, China is Indonesia’s second-largest tourist source nation after Malaysia. In 2019, a total of 1.9 million Chinese tourists visited Indonesia, representing nearly 13 percent of the overall foreign tourist visits, according to data from Statistics Indonesia.

Indonesia’s tourism minister confirmed to The Diplomat saying that the country is expected to lose around $4 billion due to the travel restrictions. Besides tourism, the travel ban will also affect import and export goods, which is troublesome as the two countries are major trade partners, with Beijing being Indonesia's largest trading partner. According to The Jakarta TimesIndonesia imported $44.5 billion dollars of non-oil and gas products from China throughout 2019, representing almost 30 percent of overall such imports into the country.

China-Denmark diplomatic spat

China had been engaged in a diplomatic battle with Denmark regarding an "insulting" cartoon on coronavirus that the Dutch shared on social media in January. Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten had carried a satirical cartoon in which it depicted a distorted Chinese flag with coronavirus icons replacing the five stars.

In a statement, the Chinese embassy in Copenhagen expressed its “strong indignation” and said the cartoon printed “is an insult to China”. It added that the drawing “crossed the bottom line of civilised society and the ethical boundary of free speech, and offends human conscience”.

Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen defended the cartoon saying her country has a "very, very strong tradition" of freedom of expression, adding that "it is a well-known Danish position, and we will not change that."

China’s diplomatic engagements slowdown

The unprecedented outbreak has also stymied China's diplomatic engagement with other countries. Xi was slated to visit Japan in April, amid straining ties between Beijing and Tokyo over the past few years. According to The Japan Times, Japanese and Chinese governments have held a series of unofficial talks to schedule Xi’s visit since the beginning of this year. However, the two sides have been forced to reschedule some meetings slated for this month in the wake of the viral epidemic, sources said.

Reports say the fates of the China-EU summit, scheduled for late March, and the subsequent April “17+1” meeting between China and 17 Central and Eastern European nations, remain unclear. While Beijing and Brussels were expected to conclude an investment deal in 2020, the negotiation schedule is now likely to face setbacks in awake of the epidemic.

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Feb 19, 2020 14:48:45 IST


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