SINGAPORE/BELGRADE (Reuters) - Last month, six Chinese medical professionals stepped off an Air Serbia jet in Belgrade to a red-carpet welcome from President Aleksandar Vucic and an array of cabinet ministers. After elbow-bump greetings, Vucic kissed Serbia’s flag, then China’s.
In Serbia, one of Beijing’s closest European allies, and a handful of other friendly countries, China is providing on-the-ground guidance to help battle the coronavirus that has swept around the world.
The outreach is part of a wider push by Beijing to assert global leadership in battling COVID-19 after facing criticism from Washington and elsewhere that it fumbled its early response to the outbreak, believed to have originated in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
These efforts by Beijing come as western governments, already wary of China’s rising influence around the world, including through its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, are struggling with their own mounting coronavirus death tolls.
They are part of a long-running effort by China to strike a benevolent posture abroad to offset worries about its growing economic and military might, while presenting alternatives - such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank it set up in 2016 - to Western dominance of global institutions.
“There is no doubt that China will use the COVID-19 outbreak to further what China views as acting in its own national interest,” said Gordon Houlden, a former Canadian diplomat and the director of the University of Alberta’s China Institute.
“That will include pushing its own governance model, in this case its methodology of epidemiology,” he said.
That methodology is based on the aggressive and comprehensive approach China took to combat the virus, including the lockdown of Wuhan, and the know-how it has built as the first country to suffer an outbreak of the disease.
China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, at a press conference on Thursday, said the aim of sending medical teams was to share China’s experiences combatting the virus, not to export its governance model abroad.
In addition to Serbia, Beijing has sent medical teams to Cambodia, Iran, Iraq, Laos, Pakistan, Venezuela and Italy, the only G7 nation to join the Belt and Road Initiative and which has been devastated by the coronavirus. Last week, a 12-member Chinese medical team arrived in the Philippines to aid in the fight against the virus.
The outreach is on top of the donation or sale of supplies to some 90 countries, including rivals such as the United States, as well as numerous videoconferences with countries and international organisations to share its know-how, according to the China International Development Cooperation Agency.
“We hope that other countries will not repeat China’s tragedies,” Peng Zhiqiang, a specialist from the Guangdong Provincial Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and head of the Chinese team in Serbia, said by phone from Belgrade.
Chinese medical teams are advising some host countries on building makeshift hospitals - evoking the 1,000 bed hospital China built from scratch in eight days in Wuhan - and rolling out virus management measures similar to those that helped it slash new infections at home, according to Peng and Liang Wenbin, a member of a Chinese team sent to Cambodia last month.
Those practices include the quarantine or isolation of people with mild symptoms to curb the early spread of the virus, methods of treating complications and widespread temperature checking for entry into public places.
On the Chinese team’s advice, Serbia began quarantining people with mild symptoms and deploying troops to build field hospitals for patients with mild symptoms.
Serbian officials said they welcomed the input, which they say has helped slow the spread of the virus.
“We changed our approach, and with the support of Chinese experts, we went for more widespread testing,” said a source close to the Serbian presidency, who was not authorised to speak with media and declined to be named.
“Chinese doctors have welcomed the measures taken by Serbia, and we have embraced the Chinese model, which is to reach and treat as many people as possible - all who are infected,” the person said.
In Cambodia, which has been a loyal supporter of Beijing in Southeast Asia, the issuance of visas for international visitors was sharply curtailed at the suggestion of the team. The country is bracing for an influx of returnees for the Khmer new year this month.
Cambodia is also considering the team’s advice to refit hotels and schools for possible quarantine of returnees, said Liang, the member of the Chinese team.
“The latest restrictions to limit the mobility of personnel and to ban foreigners from coming to the country are the control measures China used,” she said.
The Cambodian government did not reply to requests for comment.
Despite its medical outreach efforts, China has faced sharp criticism in Washington and elsewhere for suppressing early information on the virus and downplaying its risks.
“I am sceptical that many countries will soon forget China’s early missteps that contributed to the global spread of the virus,” said Ryan Hass, a senior Asia director in the Obama administration’s National Security Council who is now at the Brookings Institution.
The response to the outreach from China in countries like Serbia, however, has so far been positive.
In Belgrade, the Chinese team visited a memorial to those killed in 1999 when American bombs hit China’s embassy there in what Washington apologised for as an accident.
After the team’s arrival, a placard was mounted on a central Belgrade street with a picture of China’s leader and big letters in Chinese and Serbian: “Thank you, brother Xi”.
(This story corrects translation in final paragraph)
Reporting by Keith Zhai in Singapore and Aleksandar Vasovic in Belgrade. Additional reporting by John Geddie in Singapore and Prak Chan Thul in Phnom Penh. Editing by Tony Munroe and Philip McClellan