China tests its soft power in Southeast Asia amid coronavirus outbreak


By Keith Zhai and Patpicha Tanakasempipat

VIENTIANE, Feb 20 (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 epidemic.

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

China's foreign minister urged Singapore to ease its ban on Chinese visitors and discussed travel and trade restrictions at the meeting with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on Thursday.

At the meeting, 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!"

Officials at the meeting on Thursday did not wear masks.

"Fear is more threatening than the virus and confidence is more precious than gold," Wang told a news conference afterward.

"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. .

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.

According to a draft joint statement seen by Reuters, both ASEAN and China emphasised the "growing urgency and need for cooperation" in combating the virus outbreak and agreed to strengthen "risk communication".

ASEAN and China, its largest trading partner, have an annual travel flow of over 65 million visits. ASEAN nations collectively are also the second-largest trading partner of China.

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".

(Additional reporting by Panu Wongcha-um in Bangkok. Editing by Gerry Doyle)

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