Coronavirus an unexpected boost for diplomacy

Japan, China, and ‘mask diplomacy’ . . .

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented an unlikely opportunity for rapprochement between China and Japan, one of Asia’s most serious cases of historical animosity. It began in January with a spontaneous and prompt response from Japanese citizens, including members of Parliament, making personal donations to help fight the outbreak in China’s Hubei Province. The gesture was quickly replicated by Japan’s central government, four prefectures, and Japanese corporations like Ito-Yokado, Maeda, and Muji, all of whom donated masks, protective supplies, and other medical items. The Chinese government issued an official expression of gratitude, quoting the Chinese Book of Songs in referencing giving Japan a “a white jade for friendship.”

Paying it forward . . .

Japan’s solidarity with China is a stark contrast to the response from the U.S., which at first refused to help with needed supplies. Several members of the U.S. Congress have also been chided for referring to COVID-19 as the “China coronavirus.” Now that China seems to have gotten past the worst of its outbreak, it is offering assistance to Italy, another major epicentre of the disease, in the form of medical experts, testing kits, and masks. China is expected to extend a helping hand to France and Germany as the pandemic spreads elsewhere in Europe.

Opportunity for Canada to build bridges?

The Government of Canada was also among the first to respond constructively to the coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan. China’s ambassador thanked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in February for calling out discrimination against Chinese people in Canada. Xueming Cheng, China’s Consul General in Montreal, publicly expressed his gratitude to the Quebec government and the City of Montreal for their donations of medical supplies, masks, and financial support for the people of China. Such gestures certainly can help ease diplomatic tensions between Canada and China, but both sides have been clear that these are not sufficient to repair the relationship as it now stands. Nevertheless, if the Japan example is any indication, solidarity in difficult times can help reboot the conversation.