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International relations

China calls for 'global firewall' to halt spread of COVID-19

G-20 world leaders urge cooperation to defeat virus

Visitors wear masks during the coronavirus outbreak at the Badaling section of the Great Wall in Beijing.   © Reuters

JAKARTA/SHANGHAI -- Chinese President Xi Jinping vowed to strengthen his country's cooperation with other countries on COVID-19, stressing the need for a "global firewall" to reopen trade and to make vaccines available to all during a virtual summit of leaders from the world's 20 biggest economies.

"First, build a global firewall against COVID-19. We must first put the disease under control at home and, on that basis, strengthen exchanges and cooperation to help countries in need," Xi said at the Group of 20 online event, hosted by Saudi Arabia.

The world's second-biggest economy has seen a strong recovery from the coronavirus-induced economic slowdown, growing 4.9% between July and September compared with the same period a year ago. However, restrictions on movement and social activity has meant that most countries in the world have not been able to bounce back as strongly.

To enable economies to reopen, Xi proposed setting up an international mechanism of health codes linked to polymerase chain reaction test. The mechanism assigns colored QR codes to citizens based on their COVID-19 test results; those who test negative are given a green QR code on their mobile phones, allowing them to skirt some social restrictions. The mechanism has been in use in China since February.

"We hope more countries will join this mechanism," Xi said.

China has several vaccines in development, some of which are already being administered. Xi said China would stand by its pledge to distribute vaccines to countries in need.

Beijing "stand[s] ready to step up cooperation with other countries on the R&D, production and distribution of vaccines," the Chinese leader said. "We will honor our commitment of giving assistance and support to other developing countries, and work to make vaccines a global public good accessible and affordable to people around the world."

Host nation Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud greets other leaders before the start of the virtual G-20 meeting on Nov. 21.   © Reuters

Echoing Xi's remarks, Russian President Vladimir Putin said at the meeting that Moscow was ready to provide its Sputnik V vaccine to countries that need it, Reuters reported. Putin also said Russia was preparing a second and third vaccine.

The need for global cooperation was echoed by other world leaders at the summit.

Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud said in his opening remarks that while he was "optimistic about the progress made in developing vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics tools," G-20 nations had to "work to create the conditions for affordable and equitable access to these tools for all peoples."

Indonesian President Joko Widodo also pointed out the importance of an equitable vaccine distribution. The country's foreign minister, Retno Marsudi, who attended the meeting alongside the president, said Widodo told other leaders that "the world will not be healthy unless all countries are healthy" and that there "must be fair access to vaccines so that they are available to all countries without exception."

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called for a patent pool that would facilitate the use of affordable generic drugs throughout the world. He acknowledged that universal health care would be essential for the delivery of an appropriate level of care to defeat the virus.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the pandemic "an important turning point in the history of humanity" and the biggest challenge the world has faced since World War II. He called for decisive action by G-20, not only toward economic recovery, jobs and trade, but also environmental issues.

Meanwhile, to support a fair development of digital economy, Xi said his government was willing to work with other countries on formulating global digital governance rules. Alibaba Group Holding and Tencent are among the Chinese companies leading the country's digital economy, offering services that include shopping, transport and entertainment through mobile apps.

Xi's proposals on Saturday come after China sealed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership with 14 other countries recently, creating a free-trade zone affecting about 30% of global gross domestic product and population. He also signaled China's readiness to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership, which U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned.

Xi also added that China will provide debt assistance worth $1.3 billion to ease the financial burden of developing countries, Xi said. The measure is part of the Debt Service Suspension Initiative agreed by G-20 ministers in April, estimated to be worth about $12 billion.

Liu Kun, the Chinese finance minister, said Friday that 23 countries will benefit from the initiative as official creditors that include China International Development Cooperation Agency and the Export-Import Bank of China approved short-term loan repayment request by developing countries. The initiative is also being implemented separately by state lender China Development Bank for borrowings worth $748 million.

Additional reporting by Kiran Sharma in New Delhi

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