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Hopes for G20 coronavirus summit truce in China-US war of words

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China and the United States are expected to call a timeout on their coronavirus blame game and focus on the challenges of the pandemic, when leaders of the Group of 20 hold talks via video conference on Thursday.

According to a draft statement to be discussed at the summit, the leaders are expected to agree that the coronavirus is a common threat to humanity and united efforts are required to fight it.

All eyes will be on the US and China, which have been locked in a war of words over a pandemic that has already infected more than 409,000 people and killed 18,300.

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The US has criticised China, where the outbreak was first reported, for its slow initial response and attempts to silence people who raised the alarm about Covid-19, the disease caused by the previously unknown virus.

US President Donald Trump and other administration officials have also angered Beijing by referring to the disease as the “Chinese virus”, instead of Covid-19 as the World Health Organisation suggests. China sees the references as an attempt to stigmatise the country and pin the blame on a victim.

In preparatory discussions for the summit, the two countries agreed to set aside their differences, according to a diplomatic source familiar with the talks.

“We all live on one planet and there will be no winner in the face of the onslaught of a pandemic,” the source said, adding this was the underlying sentiment leading to the special summit.

According to the draft, the leaders agree that Covid-19 is a common threat and they will establish a mechanism to share information and experience to combat the illness.

The G20 members are also expected to promise to provide medical and financial support to less-developed countries, and look at ways to revive economic growth.

But the thorny issue of the oil price war between Saudi Arabia, which holds the G20 presidency this year, and Russia, is not likely to be on the agenda.

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In a phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Wednesday, Chinese President Xi Jinping said China was willing to work with Germany to send a unified message about containing the pandemic. The two sides should also coordinate on macroeconomic policies, state media quoted Xi as saying.

Also on Wednesday, vice foreign minister Ma Zhaoxu said China was expecting “unity, cooperation and coordination” from the G20 summit.

“The virus knows no borders and no country can stand by itself,” state media quoted Ma as saying.

In a teleconference on Monday, G20 finance ministers and central bankers resolved that G20 members should take joint action to manage the economic impact of the pandemic.

Wu Xinbo, director of the Centre for American Studies at Fudan University, said it would be in everyone’s interests to have an agreement.

Major powers needed to work together on a raft of issues, from minimising global economic disruption and speeding up the development of vaccines, to strengthening border control and repatriation efforts, Wu said.

“President Xi is likely to emphasise the concept of shared destiny [during the meeting]. He will stress the importance of countries working together under the guidance of international organisations such as the WHO, and oppose politicisation of the issue,” he said.

Wu said there were signs that tensions between China and the US were easing and this could help the members of G20 to reach consensus.

“Now that Trump has stopped calling it a Chinese virus, and ambassador [to the US] Cui Tiankai has also signalled a more conciliatory tone towards the US, the tension is lower,” he said.

But some observers cautioned against optimism.

Wang Yong, director of the Centre for International Political Economy at Peking University, said the threat of the virus might temporarily ease China-US trade tensions but their strategic mistrust was much more deep-rooted and their ties would remain uncertain.

“This might be not much more than just a joint communique. They may agree on lifting travel bans, coordinating economic stimulus and keeping trade open. But in the end many countries will focus on their own policies and it is questionable how much the G20 can achieve,” he said.

Meanwhile, German news magazine Der Spiegel reported on Tuesday that at a preliminary meeting among G7 foreign ministers, a US insistence on calling the pathogen the “Wuhan virus” was rejected by the other members.