May 15, 2020 / 6:36 AM / 21 days ago

Chinese corrals Pacific, Caribbean support ahead of World Health meeting

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Beijing has hosted a teleconference with its Pacific island nation allies to discuss COVID-19 aid and publicised their pledge to support the “One China” principle and “oppose any attempt” to politicise the coronavirus pandemic.

The Pacific Islands meeting, with China’s vice foreign minister, Zheng Zeguang, on Wednesday, came a day after Zheng held a teleconference with nine Caribbean nations, and ahead of a World Health Assembly (WHA) meeting starting on May 18.

A resolution calling for an investigation into the coronavirus pandemic, which China opposes, is expected to be debated at the WHA.

China has reacted angrily to calls from Australia for a coronavirus investigation, and accused the United States of inciting other nations to support Taiwan’s attendance as an observer at the World Health Assembly (WHA).

Beijing considers Taiwan to be a wayward province. Under World Health Organization (WHO) rules Taipei is not able to attend its meetings as it is considered to be represented by Beijing.

Papua New Guinea’s Foreign Minister Patrick Pruaitu co-chaired the meeting with China’s allies in the Pacific, where 10 nations talked about their COVID-19 response, his office said.

The Vanuatu Daily Post reported the Pacific nations had given “firm support of the one-China principle” in the meeting.

China’s provision of aid funding and medical supplies to combat COVID-19 was discussed at the meeting attended by foreign ministry officials from Fiji, Samoa, Papua New Guinea, Vanuatu, The Federated States of Micronesia, Cook Islands, Tonga, Niue, Solomon Islands and Kiribati.

Taiwan’s 15 diplomatic allies are concentrated in the Pacific Islands and the Caribbean. Last year, the Solomon Islands and Kiribati switched their allegiance to Beijing.

A statement issued by Chinese embassies in several Pacific nations and Canberra said attendees on the conference calls had pledged to “oppose any attempt at stigmatisation, politicising or labelling the virus”.

They had also “commended China for its open, transparent and responsible approach in adopting timely and robust response measures and sharing its containment experience”, the statement said.

Washington has accused Beijing of covering up its early response to the coronavirus outbreak.

The Caribbean nations had also pledged to “adhere to the one-China principle” and support China on its “core interests”, according to a statement from the Chinese foreign ministry.

Australia, the largest aid donor to the Pacific Islands, is wary of rising Chinese influence in the region, and has stepped up coronavirus aid in the past week.

Australia provided funding for the WHO to supply the Pacific with 150,000 COVID-19 tests, and airlifted some test kits and military personnel to Papua New Guinea on Monday. Australia on Thursday provided A$12.25 million ($8 million) in funding for Fiji’s COVID-19 response.

Taiwan has also sent virus aid to its Pacific allies - Palau, Nauru, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands - and 14 of its 15 allies have lodged proposals with the WHO to allow Taiwan into the WHA.

Taiwan’s Foreign Ministry this week expressed its “sincere thanks” for the backing of its allies and other “like-minded countries”.

But China’s Foreign Ministry said countries backing the Taiwan proposal are “seeking to severely disrupt this WHA and undermine global anti-pandemic cooperation”.

Beijing says Taiwan’s participation at the WHA must be arranged with the permission of Beijing, and it has refused permission since 2017.

Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Editing by Michael Perry

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