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Opinion

US can outshine China at coronavirus medical diplomacy

Washington needs to boost existing anti-pandemic research networks in Asia

| China
A medical staff takes samples at a drive-thru testing center in Daegu, South Korea, on Mar. 3; the U.S. can learn from its partners.   © Reuters

Erin Murphy is principal of Inle Advisory Group, a business advisory business focused on Myanmar and emerging Asian markets. She was special assistant to the U.S. Special Representative and Policy Coordinator for Burma.

The scramble to address the COVID-19 pandemic has opened a new power struggle between the U.S. and China, medical diplomacy.

Despite its initial missteps in transparency, China is winning by sending masks, medical supplies and doctors to stricken countries, but all is not lost for the U.S.: it still has the means to reassert its influence in Asia and reinvigorate its global leadership.

Just like China exploited the lack of U.S. leadership and assistance during the 1997 Asian financial crisis, it is once again stepping in where the U.S. is faltering now that it has somewhat contained the spread of coronavirus and is able to turn its focus outward.

In recent weeks, China has sent doctors, ventilators and hundreds of thousands of masks to Europe, albeit to complaints about the quality of certain kit. Jack Ma, co-founder of Chinese tech giant Alibaba Group Holding, donated half a million testing kits and one million face masks to the U.S. Billionaire Robert Kraft sent his American football team's plane to China to bring 1.2 million masks to Boston.

The diplomatic strings are quite visible. This soft power maneuver, even if cynically viewed as a public relations stunt, has allowed China to recast its initial role in the virus outbreak and emerge as a proactive benefactor, while the U.S. seems irresponsible and unreliable.

But the U.S. and leading countries in the Indo-Pacific region already have a cooperative network in place that would not only allow them to lead in soft medical-diplomatic measures, but also position themselves as the go-to team to handle future pandemics.

For decades, the U.S. and its Southeast Asian partners have worked together to study, survey and develop interventions to mitigate the threat of infectious diseases. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases have worked closely with Thailand's Ministry of Public Health and the country's military to strengthen local capacity to detect, prevent and control diseases that can quickly spread beyond Southeast Asian borders.

The U.S. Naval Medical Research Center-Asia is a new cooperative initiative with Singaporean scientists on infectious disease research. These efforts can contribute to quickly identifying the next pandemic and prevent it from reaching the levels of COVID-19.

There are similar American research efforts in Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, where these collaborations strengthen research capacity, state-of-the-art technologies and infectious disease diagnostic services, all critical in pandemics such as the one we are now experiencing.

The U.S. should prioritize and expand these relationships, giving them a public face to demonstrate their strength and show what America is doing in the region. Southeast Asia is almost certainly ground zero for a near-term pandemic. Researchers recently discovered six new coronavirus strains in Myanmar bats. Prioritizing these efforts could help prevent a repeat of the pain we are going through today.

Additionally, the U.S. can learn from its partners and use best practices deployed in Taiwan and South Korea. Employing lessons from the 2003 SARS outbreak, Taiwan began inspecting travelers from Wuhan in late December, set up a system to track those in self-quarantine and ramped up production of medical equipment in January. South Korea slowed the spread without lockdowns through mass diagnostic testing.

Having U.S. government pandemic response teams review previous strategies and take lessons from these partners should result in better strategies to prevent the deadly spread of and lessen the economic disruption from the next pandemic.

A U.S. Navy corpsman, assigned to Naval Medical Research Center-Asia, sets mosquito traps in Singapore in April 2015: the majority of the Indo-Pacific region does not seem aware of the efforts the U.S. has undertaken. (Handout photo from U.S. Navy)

Finally, many Americans, who like to see themselves as a force for good in the world, would appreciate knowing that their country can have a positive impact overseas while also delivering tangible benefits for people at home.

The majority of the Indo-Pacific region does not seem aware of the efforts the U.S. has undertaken or the years of research with local partners to mitigate diseases. Not everyone is going to take the time to go to the State Department's website to view news releases on U.S. work. Public diplomacy is as important in building trust and confidence as the medical services the U.S. and its partners deliver.

The U.S.'s medical cooperation with allies is an easy and effective soft power tool that could have positive and concrete global implications. There is ample evidence to suggest the U.S. and its regional partners have the capacity, resources, ingenuity and capabilities to identify, prevent and find cures for the diseases that come after COVID-19.

America's own policymakers and allies must realize that strengthening America's partnerships, learning from each other and pooling resources are not only in each other's best interests, but have been codified in U.S. treaties and security agreements for decades. The coronavirus should serve as a wake-up call to put this in practice and once again show the U.S. as a global leader and good partner.

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