China Pursues ‘Mask Diplomacy’ With Asian Neighbors during COVID-19 Crisis

Imran Vittachi
200326-GR-CH-aid-shipment-1000.jpg Employees at the Athens international airport unload boxes from an Air China plane, which carried 500,000 protective masks as part of a Chinese aid package to help Greece and other European countries contain the coronavirus, March 21, 2020.

Updated at 3:02 p.m. ET on 2020-03-27

China, once the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, is moving to polish up its battered image by scrambling to donate medical equipment and other resources to countries reeling from the COVID-19 outbreak.

Countries in South and Southeast Asia are receiving from Beijing huge shipments of medical equipment, personal protective gear and test kits, as well as medical advice on how to treat victims of the contagious and deadly virus, officials said.

In Malaysia – where coronavirus cases now top 2,000 – health authorities held a teleconference this week with experts from China to discuss how to rein in the infection rate, which shot up in recent weeks, said Noor Hisham Abdullah, director-general of the Ministry of Health.

“We were looking into learning new things to help us fight COVID-19 … There are new medicines from China…,” he told reporters, adding that some of the drugs may not yet be approved for use in Malaysia and their side effects still needed to be studied.

China had already supplied Malaysia with protective gear, hand sanitizers and other materials for the fight against the virus, he said.

Beijing even offered to send doctors to Malaysia, Noor Hisham said, “but, thank God, so far we have enough doctors.”

‘We will reciprocate their kindness’

Aside from Malaysia, Beijing in recent days has sent countries such as the Philippines, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Thailand large shipments of aid packages, including donated N95 face masks, medical masks, goggles, protective suits, kits for COVID-19 testing, and other paraphernalia, according to officials from their governments.

Analysts have coined a name for the outreach: ‘mask diplomacy.’

Some argue that Beijing was on a damage-control drive after coming under criticism for covering up the crisis in its early stages when the virus emerged in the central city of Wuhan last November. China was also faulted for not giving the world early enough warning.

“Among its serious errors at the outset of the outbreak in Wuhan was its failure to communicate,” the Council on Foreign Relations, a New York-based think-tank, said in a report this week. “Local authorities withheld information about the virus from the public and the central government and silenced doctors who spoke out.”

According to Rommel Banlaoi, a Philippine expert on China, Beijing, through its outreach to its neighbors during the coronavirus outbreak, is sending them aid “to continuously build its image as a benign and responsible major power.”

“China also wants to refute Western criticism of its strong approach to deal with the pandemic. Now that China is recovering from the harsh effects of the pandemic, it wants to tell the world that China can offer useful lessons from its recent experience,” Banlaoi, who heads the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, a local think-tank, told BenarNews.

The outreach by the Chinese government, state-run firms as well as Jack Ma –China’s richest man – has reached far beyond Asia to countries in Africa and in Europe, including Italy and Spain, whose death toll has overtaken that in China.

“For countries that have assisted China in its fight against the epidemic, we will reciprocate their kindness without any hesitation if they need it,” Geng Shuang, the spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry, told reporters this week.

“We will offer assistance as our capability allows to friendly countries that are in a severe situation and lack … prevention and control materials, especially those developing countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America, as well as regional organizations such as the African Union.”

Meanwhile in Washington on Thursday, American Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the United States was making available $274 million in additional U.S. aid to help other countries combat the COVID-19 outbreak.

The superpower will provide the money to “64 of the world’s most at-risk countries to better combat the pandemic” and enable the U.N.’s refugee agency “to assist some of the world’s most vulnerable populations, Pompeo said.

The new aid package includes $100 million in emergency health assistance and $110 million in new disaster international disaster assistance, he said.

The aid package builds upon $1.3 billion in separate U.S. foreign aid to help countries worldwide respond to the pandemic that President Donald Trump signed into law in early March, Pompeo said.

“The United States will continue to take action to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. This funding is an initial investment, on top of the continuing funding we already provide to multilateral organizations such as the World Health Organization and UNICEF,” the secretary said.

“We welcome continued, no-strings-attached contributions from other donors to further catalyze global response efforts underway,” he added.

Chinese delivers aid to neighbors

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who was in Jakarta this week, said now was the time for China to reciprocate the support that Indonesia had shown to Beijing when the world’s most populous nation was dealing with the crisis after the virus first broke out in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province.

“China-assisted supplies have left for Indonesia today and we will provide facilitation for the country to purchase epidemic response supplies from China,” he said on Wednesday.

An Indonesian military cargo plan earlier this week flew in nine tons of medical supplies from China. On Friday, 20 more tons of medical equipment and supplies imported from China for battling the viral outbreak arrived in Indonesia, and 20 tons of health kits were also due to arrive from China the next day, Indonesian government officials said.

Some of the supplies were donated by Indonesian citizens living in China, an official at the Indonesian foreign ministry, Santo Darmosumarto, said.

In Dhaka, a Chinese plane this week delivered 40,000 COVID testing kits and other supplies donated to Bangladesh by China, according to information from the Chinese embassy and BSS, the Bangladeshi state-run news agency.

Meanwhile in Thailand, the health ministry announced that it had taken delivery of tens of thousands of COVID testing kits, surgical masks and protective suits donated from foundations linked to Jack Ma, and had received a shipment of supplies donated by the Chinese government earlier this week. Three-quarters of the testing kits given to Bangladesh this week were also donated by the same charitable organizations associated with Ma.

Last week, in the Philippines, the Department of Foreign Affairs announced that it had also received large donations of medical supplies from China, including surgical masks, protective equipment and test kits.


There were no adverse reports on Chinese aid in the region, unlike in Europe.

According to a news report published Wednesday, 80 percent of rapid testing kits that the Czech Republic recently acquired from China for COVID testing were faulty and had produced erroneous test results on Czech citizens, Taiwan News quoted Czech officials as saying.

In Washington, a U.S. lawmaker and senior member of the House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee blasted what he said were multiple reports that the China was selling faulty medical equipment to countries hard hit by the virus, such as the Czech Republic and Spain.

“While the Chinese Communist Party is desperately attempting to shift the blame by casting itself as a protector of global health, the truth is now emerging behind the propaganda they push,” Congressman Michael McCaul said in a statement.

Another flap over China’s largesse emerged in Beijing, where the Thai Embassy issued a press release responding to allegations in Chinese media that Thailand was taking medical aid from China while exporting masks to the United States.

“The Embassy would like to clarify that Thailand received Chinese medical aid at China’s will. Thailand had provided China with medical supplies before, during its COVID peak. Many masks are produced by foreign factories registered under the Thailand Board of Investment with a clause that specifies they are for export only,” the statement said.

Analysts: Good PR for China

China’s public relations drive in Asia may also help ease longstanding concerns in the region over Beijing’s One Belt, One Road Initiative aimed at funding and building mammoth infrastructure projects.

Some officials and experts in the region, while acknowledging that the initiative would boost trade and growth for economies, also express fear that the high-cost projects could lay a debt trap for governments who borrow huge sums of money from China to build the public works.

China’s mass donations of masks and supplies to countries during the coronavirus crisis “are pivotal in rehabilitating China’s historically maligned and recently ignominious image in particular areas,” Brian Wong, a political scientist and MPhil candidate at Oxford University, said in an article published in The Diplomat this week.

“Through offering emergency relief at critical junctures such as natural disasters and public health crises … China gains unrivaled and significant access to the critical infrastructure within the states that open themselves up to China,” he said.

Noah Lee and Nisha David in Kuala Lumpur, Ahmad Syamsudin in Jakarta, Jesmin Papri in Dhaka, Jason Gutierrez in Manila, and Pimuk Rakkanam in Bangkok contributed to this report.


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