Chinese President Xi Jinping made an unusually intense diplomatic gesture towards Europe on Saturday by calling the leaders of France, Germany, Spain and Serbia to offer support in their fight against Covid-19.
The calls came as many European nations are facing shortages of the essential medical supplies and equipment they need to combat the pandemic that has already killed more than 5,000 people across the continent.
Italy has been the worst hit, with more than 4,000 people killed and over 47,000 infected. In Spain, the death toll jumped by more than 300 on Saturday to 1,326, while the number of confirmed cases neared 25,000.
In contrast, China has reported no new local transmissions for three days. As a result, the industrial powerhouse has been able to send millions of face masks it might otherwise have needed to Europe.
In a call to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Xi said China was prepared to do all it could to help.
“If Germany is in need, China is willing to provide help within our capabilities,” he was quoted as saying by Xinhua, which reported on all of the calls.
“Public health crises are the common challenges facing humankind, and unity and cooperation are its most powerful weapons,” he said, adding that China was willing to share its “information and experience”.
Beijing was also ready to work with Berlin in other areas, such as vaccine development, Xi said.
Germany, which has reported more than 20,000 cases and 44 deaths, is the only country out of the four Xi called that has not yet requested medical supplies from China.
Of the four countries Xi called, only Serbia is not a member of the European Union. Its president, Aleksandar Vucic, earlier dismissed the EU’s vow of solidarity as a “fantasy” and turned to China for help.
“China and Serbia are comprehensive strategic partners,” Xi told Vucic on Saturday. “The hard-as-iron friendship of the two countries, and of the two peoples, shall last forever.”
Xi pledged to provide Serbia with protective gear and medical equipment, as well as helping it to source materials from China.
Vucic also managed to secure a guarantee from the Chinese president that he would send medical teams to Serbia, like those already deployed in Italy and Spain, the Xinhua report said.
Despite Vucic’s criticism of the EU, the bloc said on Friday it would provide Serbia with €7.5 million (US$8 million) worth of aid.
“Next week, big cargo airplanes will bring critical medical equipment. EU [is] always with Serbia in times of need,” EU ambassador to Belgrade Sem Fabrizi said on Twitter, adding: “Action not words.”
French President Emmanuel Macron has reportedly called for more power to be given to the European Commission, the executive arm of the EU, as member states, current and future, could lose trust in the institution as the health crisis unfolds.
In his phone call with Macron, Xi also appealed for support from the World Health Organisation.
“China is willing to work with France to jointly promote international cooperation on preventing and controlling the disease, and on supporting the UN [United Nations] and WHO in playing a core role in perfecting global public health management,” he said.
The call was the second in three days between the two leaders.
In a poll published on Friday, Macron’s popularity rating rose past 50 per cent for the first time since 2018, France24 reported. The result suggests the French public approves of the way in which he is handling the health crisis.
Xi’s telephone call to Spain was unusual in that he spoke to King Felipe, the ceremonial head of state who generally stays out of politics.
Nonetheless, Xi again pledged his support and willingness to share China’s experiences in handling the disease and treating patients, Xinhua said.
After three days of no new domestic infections in mainland China, some residents of Wuhan, the Chinese city hardest hit by the disease, celebrated with fireworks as local authorities began removing checkpoints. Restrictions were also eased in other cities.
Beijing’s containment efforts are now focused on preventing imported cases. National Health Commission spokesman Mi Feng said on Saturday that the number of such infections had surged by 216 per cent to 269 on Friday, from just 85 on March 11. In the same period, the total number of infections worldwide had risen by 98 per cent.
“We have to strictly stop imported cases, step up epidemic control and avoid any rebound,” he said.
Additional reporting by Linda Lew
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