Japan is accelerating diplomatic efforts focused on offering medical equipment and aid, hoping that its display of long-term commitment to supporting other countries in fighting the coronavirus pandemic will help counter China's attempts to expand its clout through vaccine development and the distribution of medical supplies such as face masks.
As of Aug. 12, the government had agreed with 68 countries to offer medical devices after securing ¥48 billion in coronavirus-related aid expenses in the extra budget for fiscal 2020. It hopes to strengthen its presence as a major donor in the field of public health, officials have said.
"Japan is advocating for and taking the lead in providing support to developing countries with vulnerable health care systems to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus," Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi told a recent news conference.
Responding to a question about China's "mask diplomacy," Motegi said: "Our grant aid is being carried out at unprecedented speed. Japan is aiming to provide support for health in developing countries and strengthen their health care systems, rather than sending individual items such as masks."
China has said it has provided medical supplies to more than 150 countries and sent medical experts to 27 countries.
Japan is donating ambulances, beds, CT scanners and other medical gear to around 100 countries, such as Myanmar and Djibouti, as well as to Palau and other Pacific island countries.
Motegi said in July that Japan will also spend ¥11.6 billion to extend technical cooperation for medical workers and provide health care supplies to the five countries along the Mekong River — Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam.
The government says it is not only giving out medical equipment to the countries for their short-term needs but also providing follow-up and maintenance support over the medium and long term.
While Japan hopes to resume the dispatch of experts to train personnel for infectious disease control once travel restrictions are lifted, it is currently using teleconference systems to give advice and train public health officials and engineers.
Japan is also stepping up its supply of the anti-viral drug Avigan of Fujifilm Holdings Corp., which is currently carrying out clinical tests on it in Japan as a potential coronavirus treatment, for countries interested in using it.
Motegi has said around 80 countries have requested supplies of Avigan, with Estonia becoming the first to receive the medicine in early May.
While the effectiveness of the drug in treating COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, has not been proven in clinical studies so far, Tokyo is offering the drug upon request.
Japan has disbursed $1 million to the U.N. Office for Project Services, which will buy the drug from a Japanese supplier and deliver it to countries that have shown interest.
Nonetheless, Beijing's diplomatic charm offensive is a cause for concern for Japan, which has been locked in disputes with its neighbor over history and the sovereignty of islands.
Some analysts say that China could use its medical and health assistance to garner tacit support for its controversial policies, including its assertiveness in the South and East China seas, alleged human rights abuses of the Uighur population or its hard-line attitude toward Taiwan and pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong.
Such fears could materialize if China outshines other major countries at coronavirus diplomacy, they say.
China, a front-runner in vaccine development, has pledged to globally share any successful vaccine, apparently aiming to increase its influence. Successful vaccine development could give China a diplomatic advantage that would be hard for Japan to match.
Japanese drugmakers have only a handful of coronavirus vaccine and COVID-19 treatment candidates in their pipelines, with medical startup Anges Inc. being the only Japanese drugmaker conducting a clinical trial of an experimental vaccine on humans.
China is running ahead in the intensifying race to develop a vaccine, with Sinovac Biotech Ltd., CanSino Biologics Inc. and China National Pharmaceutical Group Co., known as Sinopharma, all conducting Phase 3 clinical trials of drugs, the final step before approval, according to the World Health Organization.
The other candidates in Phase 3 tests are those developed by U.S., British and German companies.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said in late July it "will give priority" to the Philippines if it succeeds in developing a vaccine.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has recently faced criticism for backing down on the country's territorial claims in the South China Sea that overlap with Beijing's after gaining assurances about receiving coronavirus vaccines from China.
"Because of its high-handed approach, there have been frictions between recipient countries of Chinese aid and China, but if an infection spreads at a rapid speed many countries have no choice but to depend on Chinese aid," wrote Shinichi Kitaoka, president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency, in an article in the latest edition of a diplomacy magazine published by the Foreign Ministry.
"It will be something of a nightmare if China dominates" the fight against coronavirus and uses it to gain a political advantage, he wrote.
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