Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with his Southeast Asian counterparts on Thursday, calling for solidarity in countering the coronavirus epidemic and urging China’s neighbors to reopen borders closed since the outbreak became public.
In a separate meeting on Mekong River policy in the Lao capital, Vientiane, Wang said China would release water from its upriver dams, many in Southeast Asia have blamed for drought that has hurt fisheries and agriculture in the region.
At the start of Thursday’s meeting, Wang and his ASEAN counterparts locked arms in a show of solidarity in the fight against COVID-19. Wang gave details on China’s response to the outbreak so far, and indicated that the epidemic might be starting to wane, the AP reported.
Several of the ASEAN ministers praised China’s effort, especially its willingness to share information which allowed countries to develop testing kits for the virus.
“We reached an important consensus on China and ASEAN joining hands to fight against the epidemic,” Wang said to reporters after the meeting. “We agreed to stand united and stay confident and support each other in this time of difficulty.”
Wang acknowledged that the disease was bad for the inter-connected economies of China and ASEAN.
“The outbreak may have taken a toll on economic cooperation between China and ASEAN countries but such an impact can be overcome and made up,” Wang said.
“The Chinese economy has strong driving forces and is highly resilient and the long-term positive trajectory will remain intact.”
China on Thursday reported 2,118 deaths and 74,576 confirmed cases of COVID-19, with newly confirmed cases rising more slowly than in previous weeks.
More information sought
The ministers outlined ways their countries could better collaborate, including combined actions against the further spread of the disease.
“The COVID-19 outbreak has become a global challenge that knows no national borders. We have no other choice but to collaborate,” Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi said after the meeting.
“Exchanges of information between ASEAN-China countries are essential,” Retno said.
Secondly, an ASEAN-China mechanism in dealing with endemic epidemic crises such as COVID-19 must be strengthened by establishing an ASEAN-China Ad-Hoc Health Ministerial Joint Task Force, she said.
She said this task force could focus on exchanging information and data, joint research and activities for the detection of viruses and vaccines. A public information campaign should be carried out to counter stigmatization and false news, she added.
“Public communication and education related to the COVID outbreak is very important to prevent panic and confusion among the people,” Retno said.
Foreign Affairs Secretary Secretary Teodoro L. Locsin met Wang on the Wednesday, the eve of the ASEAN gathering, and pledged Manila's support for Beijing, his ministry said in a statement.
"Expressing the Philippines’ confidence in China overcoming this public health crisis, the Secretary handed a letter from President Rodrigo Duterte for President Xi Jinping conveying the country’s solidarity and support," the statement said.
Vietnam, which has reported 16 cases of COVID-19, defended its decision to seal up the border with China to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Mekong River dams
Foreign Minister Pham Binh Minh rebuffed Wang’s request that Vietnam allow Chinese to enter Vietnam under the same terms as before the outbreak, the official Tuoi Tre newspaper reported.
“In order to prevent and control the spread of COVID-19, the governments of Vietnam and China have been cooperating closely on transportation between our two countries,” said Doan Khac Viet, the deputy spokesman of Vietnam’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Doan said the measures were taken “with the aim of controlling COVID-19, not to shut the door or [negatively] affect economic, trade or exchange activities.”
Hanoi suspended flights to and from China and visas for Chinese tourists last month as a response to the epidemic. Vietnam has also temporarily closed unofficial roads and pathways between the two countries, and all travelers entering Vietnam via China are required to be quarantined for 14 days.
Vietnam’s Ministry of Industry and Trade said in a statement posted on its website that it has eased restrictions on cross-border trade with China, reopening a key border crossing at Tan Thanh in the northern province of Lang Son to facilitate goods flows.
Wang followed the ASEAN emergency meeting with an appearance at the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation (LMC) development project, a Beijing-backed grouping.
Wang told the LMC meeting that China was doing what it could to help its Southeast Asian neighbors cope with last year’s severe drought, which lasted long into what should have been the region’s rainy season.
Wang said Chinese dams on the Mekong River, which China calls the Lancang, would release water and would consider sharing hydrology information to assist its neighbors in the future.
Wang made the remarks in response to a critical economic report which said that rampant damming on the Mekong would transform the economies of five countries the river flows through and contribute to long-term inflation and dependence on China.
Critics and NGOs fault China’s 11 dams on the Mekong for contributing to drought that severely damaged agriculture and fisheries downriver in Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.
But Wang said the drought was mostly caused by a lack of rain and pointed out that China suffered from that, 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.
Additional Reporting by RFA’s Vietnamese Service, and by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. Vietnamese translation by Huy Le.