China and ASEAN to coordinate action against coronavirus

Badly affected by the epidemic, Beijing wants to restore normal economic relations with its southern neighbours. China is the bloc's top trading partner and a major investor. Almost all Southeast Asian countries have reduced exchanges with mainland China. Bad relations between China and Vietnam could impact on anti-coronavirus cooperation.

Vientiane (AsiaNews/Agencies) – China and the Association of Southeast Asian Countries (ASEAN) met in Vientiane, Laos, to coordinate efforts against the spread of the COVID-19 virus, which has caused the death of more than 2,000 people in China and affected some ASEAN members, most notably Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam. A similar meeting was held in 2003 to deal with the SARS epidemic.

The two sides plan to exchange information and discuss further steps, with permanent contact to respond more quickly to the evolving emergency.

Beijing clearly wants business with its southern neighbours to go back to pre-coronavirus levels. China is ASEAN’s first trading partner. Trade between the two sides reached US8 billion in 2018, with China accumulating a surplus of US billion, according to the International Monetary Fund.

In China itself, the COVID-19 outbreak has negatively impacted economy, already affected by the trade war with the United States.

Beijing's support for manufacturing sector could divert resources from its Belt and Road Initiative, the new Silk Roads, Xi Jinping's strategy to boost trade between China and the rest of the world. Southeast Asia plays a central element in this plan.

According to the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), China is also a major investors in ASEAN countries, almost US billion in 2018 (twice as much if Hong Kong is counted)

Despite the show of solidarity, and reassurances from Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi that COVID-19 is "controllable and curable", ASEAN countries are unwilling to lift the measures adopted to contain the epidemic, even if they harm the Chinese economy.

Thailand only allows travellers from China if they have a clean bill of health. Singapore and the Philippines have restricted flights, whilst Vietnam quarantines all foreign visitors who visited China in the two weeks prior to entering the country.

Malaysia has imposed a total ban on people from the Chinese provinces of Hubei, Zhejiang and Jiangsu. Cambodia, which is politically and economically aligned with China, has not introduced restrictions on travel to and from China.

The success of cooperation between Beijing and ASEAN on the epidemic will depend on the attitude Vietnam, ASEAN’s current chair.

Relations between Hanoi and Beijing are at an all-time low due to territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which also involve other ASEAN states (Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia).