VIENTIANE (AFP) - China's efforts to control the deadly outbreak of a new coronavirus "are working", Beijing's top diplomat said on Thursday (Feb 20), attributing an easing in new cases to his country's "forceful action" against the illness.
Speaking in Laos after talks with peers from the 10 South-east Asian (Asean) countries, Wang Yi said the outbreak was "controllable and curable" despite the global panic it has seeded.
"China is not only protecting its own people but also the rest of the world," he told the summit in Vientiane, referencing a recent sharp drop in new cases of the virus inside China, where it has killed more than 2,100 people.
The hastily-convened summit with Asean neighbours comes as a region dependent on the flow of Chinese goods and tourists faces a steep bill following restrictions on movement from China.
A similar meeting was held in 2003 following the outbreak of Sars.
Originating in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, the new coronavirus - known as Covid-19 - has infected more than 74,000 people inside China.
The government has locked down tens of millions of people in several virus-hit cities, extended Chinese New Year holidays and pulled flights in a scramble to contain the virus.
Still the health scare has cascaded across South-east Asia, with cases recorded in the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
The Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam have restricted flights from mainland China and suspended visa-free arrivals as health screening ramps up at entry points.
Thailand, which has imposed no such restrictions, reported a 90 per cent slump in arrivals from the mainland this month, a gut punch to an already beleaguered tourist sector which makes up nearly a fifth of the economy. Thailand anticipates a loss of more than US$8 billion (S$11.1 billion) by year's end from the tourist tail-off.
In Laos, Beijing will be eager to "project regional solidarity with its anti-pandemic efforts" a South-east Asian diplomat told AFP, declining to be named.
China sees Asean as its backyard and has ramped up economic, diplomatic and cultural influence over recent years with billions of dollars of investment, tourist outflows and a bigger presence at regional summits.
There are fears that prolonged disruption by the virus could slow work on the massive China-backed "Belt and Road" infrastructure schemes which criss-cross Asean.
Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin Jr thanked China for its "unprecedented domestic measures and quick action" - apparently referring to the lockdowns of several large cities as the virus billowed out.
But he recognised the "massively detrimental" economic impact of the disease, which has constricted global trade and tourism vital to many South-east Asian economies.
The Asean meeting started on Thursday with a rallying cry of "Stay strong, Wuhan! Stay strong, China! Stay strong, Asean!" by the ministers at a joint photo session.
Speaking at a dinner gathering on Wednesday evening, Mr Wang told his Asean counterparts that China is confident of winning the fight against Covid-19 with the support of the international community, including Asean.
Ties with Singapore will deepen, Chinese foreign minister
On Wednesday, he held a meeting with Singapore Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, during which the Chinese Foreign Minister expressed hope that Thursday's Special Asean-China Foreign Ministers' Meeting would not only explore ways to cope with the epidemic, but also enhance cooperation on public health in the region and promote the capacity of regional countries in meeting the challenges of public health such as this epidemic.
Mr Wang thanked Singapore for the support it has provided China in fighting the disease, which he said embodied the excellent tradition between the two countries of always supporting and helping each other in difficult times.
He said the friendship between the two countries would be deepened by the joint fight against the epidemic, and also declared that cooperation between the two countries would be widened after the epidemic is brought to an end.
Dr Balakrishnan said China has been dealing with the epidemic in a highly responsible manner and taking measures rarely seen in the world.
China also shared information with the international community at the onset of the epidemic, thus providing valuable help to countries like Singapore, he said.
Singapore highly appreciates and respects China's arduous endeavour and sacrifice, said the Singapore minister, adding that Singapore would continue to firmly support China.
Singapore is willing to pursue communication and cooperation with China, and will spare no effort to bring the epidemic under control in order to restore normal exchanges, Dr Balakrishnan added.
This year marks the 30th anniversary of the establishment of the diplomatic relations between Singapore and China.
The Singapore side expects frequent high-level exchanges with China, Dr Balakrishnan said, with a view to beef up construction of the New International Land-Sea Trade Corridor, actively promote the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and participate in the Belt and Road Initiative.
Founded in 1967, Asean comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.