News analysis

Coronavirus response a high-wire act of diplomacy, politics for some countries

Medical workers inside an isolated section of a community health service centre in Wuhan, Hubei, on Feb 8, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

BANGKOK - Travelling to Beijing on short notice last week, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen shunned the mask, grasped Chinese Premier Li Keqiang's hands, and pledged Cambodian support for the embattled Chinese government.

On the same trip, he also requested Chinese support for its investors to remain in Cambodia should the Kingdom lose its duty-free export privileges to the European Union.

The partial suspension of this status, affecting its important textile industry, was announced by the EU on Wednesday (Feb 12).

For some countries more than others, containing the coronavirus epidemic is becoming a high-wire act of diplomacy.

Some regional officials have agonised over the question of whether to restrict entry to travellers from China, wary that a riled Beijing could put the brakes on crucial tourism spending and trade after the virus is brought under control.

China is one of the biggest - if not the biggest - source of tourists, trade and investment for countries in this region.

Just last year, for example, a record 11 million Chinese tourists came through Thailand, while another 5.8 million toured Vietnam. Chinese outbound tourists spent US$127.5 billion (S$177 billion) from January to June last year, according to a report by Group and UnionPay International.

Dr Zhang Miao, associate professor at Xiamen University's school of international relations, says: "As excessive restrictions can only fuel the spread of international fear against Chinese travellers, such actions may be destructive to bilateral relations, and may thus create certain diplomatic consequences."

Mr Adam Ni, co-editor of China Neican, a newsletter on China issues, thinks Beijing is more concerned about the loss of prestige rather than practical implications of these travel restrictions.

"Stopping flights to and from China, and not issuing visas to Chinese nationals is an important issue for Beijing because it's an issue of 'face'," he told The Straits Times. "Beijing sees that as not a friendly act, one that leads it to lose face in the eyes of the Chinese populace and international society."

Countries that have been too quick to shut their doors to China in their fight against the virus will likely face repercussions, said Mr Ni. "In the short term, the likelihood is small, given Beijing has other more immediate preoccupations, but punitive action in the future is likely."

One famous example of Beijing pulling its economic levers involved South Korea in 2017, after Seoul decided - against China's objections - to deploy a United States missile defence system on its soil. China's ban on group tours to the country caused an estimated S$9.3 billion in losses for South Korean companies.

Now, with outward bound group tours halted by China in its bid contain the virus, the regional picture is still fluid.

Vietnam, which has uncovered 16 cases so far, has taken tough measures to reduce the chances of infection being transported across its border with China. It has suspended passenger train services and flights to China, halted visa approvals, and put Chinese workers under strict quarantine.

"The Vietnamese government is more concerned about the economic impact of the travel restriction than diplomatic reactions from China… but Vietnam has no choice," says Dr Le Hong Hiep, a fellow at Iseas-Yusof Ishak Institute. "The government needs to act strongly to maintain public confidence in its ability to govern and to respond to emergencies."

Thailand, which has 33 cases, continues to give visas-on-arrival to Chinese visitors despite local anxiety.

Those wanting to keep it this way include Tourism Authority of Thailand governor Yuthasak Supasorn, who was quoted by the Bangkok Post as saying: "Some discontented travellers may throw a tantrum against Thailand, as happened during the Phuket boat accident in which a lot of Chinese died."

In 2018, after a tourist boat sinking off Phuket killed 47 Chinese nationals, deputy prime minister Prawit Wongsuwan triggered widespread anger among Chinese by laying the blame on Chinese tour operators. Chinese visitor numbers plunged.

Wary of being dragged through the gauntlet of Chinese disapproval again, Bangkok has kept the door firmly open. Yet it did not hesitate this week to turn away the cruise ship Westerdam, run by the US-based Holland America Line, which had earlier been rejected by other four countries and territories, for fear that its passengers might be infected.

It departed Hong Kong on Feb 1 with 1,455 passengers and 802 crew on board. None of the passengers who were ill have tested positive for the coronavirus. Permission to dock on Thursday was finally granted to the ship by Cambodia, in Sihanoukville.

Mr Hun Sen plans to personally travel to Sihanoukville on Friday (Feb 14) to welcome passengers on the Westerdam.

"We know who our good friends are during hard times," he wrote on Facebook on Thursday, echoing what Chinese President Xi Jinping said during his Beijing trip. "Now the world can clearly see that Cambodia cooperates not only with China, but also with all countries, including the United States."

Observers believe medical considerations will ultimately hold sway if the outbreak becomes critical in a country. But for now at least, decisions on who to shut out in the name of combating the coronavirus will coloured by realpolitik.

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