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Specter of Runaway Virus Outbreak Strains China’s Relations Around Asia

Health workers wearing protective masks carry placards as they hold a protest in front of a government hospital in Manila on February 7, 2020. - The new coronavirus that emerged in the Chinese city of Hubei to date has killed more than 630 people,…
Health workers wearing protective masks carry placards as they hold a protest in front of a government hospital in Manila on February 7, 2020. - The new coronavirus that emerged in the Chinese city of Hubei to date has killed more than 630 people,…

Neighbors with old gripes against China now worry that Asia’s biggest power is downplaying the number of novel coronavirus infections.

Asian governments with historically tense relations with China, from Japan to Vietnam, are facing domestic pressures to take more measures against the deadly new coronavirus amid fears the Asian superpower might handle the outbreak irresponsibly.

Suspicions that Chinese officials are underreporting coronavirus cases to ensure social stability particularly carry weight in neighboring countries hoping to contain their own outbreaks among people who have entered from China, political analysts say. Most cases worldwide remain in China, where the disease was discovered in December in the central city of Wuhan. The virus has reached six other Asian countries.

Maritime disputes, competing sovereignty claims and issues left over from World War II add to suspicion of China, challenging Asian governments to address the fears of their citizens, analysts say.

“If you’re optimistic, then you’ll think China will try to modify its policy toward other countries,” said Alex Chiang, associate professor of international politics at National Chengchi University in Taipei. “It would be less assertive and maybe more accommodative of other countries’ interests," he added.

However, he said, “If China continues its behavior in the past, I think there will be more friction in the future.”

Past behavior refers largely to the 2003 outbreak in China of SARS, or severe acute respiratory syndrome. Chinese officials initially reported low numbers despite widespread unofficial reports of a soaring caseload. In Wuhan last month, following the country’s first local health statement on the coronavirus, police detained eight people suspected of spreading rumors.

Accurate information key

Neighboring countries want the truth so they can calibrate travel restrictions that are neither too light nor too draconian, analysts in the region say. Light controls could result in overwhelmed local health care if Chinese arrivals bring in the virus, whereas stronger restrictions threaten trade and tourism relations with Asia’s biggest economy.

“Social media has been putting out alternative stories to the official line that there are only such-and-such number of cases, about how there’s actually more than the reported number of cases,” said Ibrahim Suffian, program director with Merdeka Center, a polling organization in Malaysia, a major winter destination for Chinese tourists.

“Certainly there is always a twinge of doubt about veracity of data coming from China officials,” he said.

No more tiptoeing

Japan waited until after the Lunar New Year holiday in late January to step up controls against Chinese arrivals as it tried to be polite before an expected visit by Chinese President Xi Jinping, said Jeffrey Kingston, history instructor at Temple University's Japan campus. However, a longer outbreak could curtail participation in Tokyo’s 2020 Summer Olympics, some officials fear.

“I think everyone is sort of tiptoeing,” Kingston said.

“Now there is more vetting and they’re asking where people are coming from and they are putting passengers that show symptoms into quarantine, and they are restricting entry to people from Wuhan, but the government has come under a lot of pressure from people in the Diet claiming that it’s too little too late,” he said, referring to Japan’s legislature.

Japan and China struggle to get along because of World War II issues led by Beijing’s perception that Tokyo has not adequately apologized for invading Chinese territory.

In Vietnam, immigration agents at remote border crossings with China are denying entry to people with any China visa history in their passports, although it’s against official policy, business consultancy Dezan Shira & Associates said in a research note Feb. 6. Vietnam has reported 10 coronavirus cases. Vietnam separately spars with China over maritime sovereignty and the two fought a border war in the 1970s.

No Sinophobia

In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte asked citizens Monday to “stop this Sinophobia thing” after his country reported the first coronavirus death outside China, the Manila Bulletin reported.

Many Filipinos resent Beijing for having challenged Manila’s tiny land holdings in the South China Sea since 2012. One reader comment on the domestic news website called it “ok to err on the side of caution (a.k.a. Sinophobia).”

Duterte surprised Filipinos in 2016 by forging a friendship with China. Citizens are pushing the Duterte government to be tougher now as Chinese nationals come increasingly for work and tourism, said Maria Ela Atienza, political science professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman.

With the virus spreading, she said, “some people are trying to connect these issues.”

Taiwan and WHO

In Taiwan, about half of all people in the capital, Taipei, wear face masks outdoors despite official guidance to save the scarce supply for crowded places. Sixteen people have fallen sick in Taiwan, and mask wearers say they’re worried about an unforeseen spike in cases. Taiwan officials have renewed calls this month to participate in the World Health Organization, which is helping to control the global outbreak, despite China’s refusal to let it in.

China claims sovereignty over self-ruled Taiwan and uses its global diplomatic clout to stop it from joining international organizations.