Myanmar Junta Backs Beijing in Spat With US Over Origins of Coronavirus

By The Irrawaddy 3 September 2021

Amid the growing salvo of words between the US and China over the investigation into the origin of the coronavirus, Myanmar’s military regime is standing with Beijing—its biggest supplier and donor of  coronavirus vaccines and one of its sole defenders at the UN.

Myanmar’s Health Ministry said on Wednesday night that the search for the origin of the coronavirus should be conducted scientifically, and solely for the purpose of finding treatments.

The search “should not blame or put political pressure on other countries,” it said in a statement.

It also urged countries to step up cooperation in the fight against new variants of the virus and called on vaccine-producing countries to trade with, support and provide assistance to other countries, especially developing countries, to promote vaccine production.

The statement doesn’t say specifically who is blaming or putting political pressure on whom. However, it would be an easy guess for anyone following Beijing-Washington relations.

Naypyitaw’s show of support for its powerful northern neighbor came after the release of a declassified summary of the US intelligence report on the origin of the coronavirus last week.

Tracing the origin of the pandemic, which has so far killed more than 4.5 million people worldwide, has been a thorny issue for US-China relations. The two sides have pointed fingers at each other. Some in the US have said the deadly virus was leaked from a lab in Wuhan in China, while some in China have claimed it originated from an American military base in Maryland.

In March a WHO joint study reported that it was “extremely unlikely” the virus had been released in a laboratory accident. However, given the limited access allowed to the study team during their visit to Wuhan, the report left many people unimpressed. Chinese authorities insisted there would be no more follow-up investigations. Following this, President Joe Biden ordered America’s intelligence services in May to report on the pandemic’s origin in 90 days, by late last month.

In a summary of the report, its authors said that without help from China, the true origin of the virus can’t be determined. Biden said Washington and its allies will push China for answers, earning a furious response from Beijing.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said on Monday that the intelligence assessment was a “political report that runs counter to science” and “a false report that smears China with fabricated pretenses” like those used by the US to deceive the international community when alleging that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction.

The spokesperson also questioned why the US asked intelligence agencies rather than scientists to investigate the virus’ origins.

“The US should also explain this. Why is it so obsessed with the lab leak theory despite the clear lack of scientific evidence? Even after its intelligence community went out in full force and failed to find any evidence, the US still clings to the lab leak theory. If this is not political manipulation, how is it defined otherwise?” he asked.

Wang asked why the US had seen the largest number of both COVID-19 infections and deaths despite having the most advanced medical equipment and technology in the world.

Despite being accused of hiding the origin of the pandemic, China has launched vaccine diplomacy in many parts of the world, especially in Southeast Asia, by donating and supplying its homegrown Sinopharm and Sinovac vaccines to other countries.

So far, Myanmar has received 7.6 million doses of vaccine from China. The Chinese Embassy in Myanmar said last week that of the total, 2.9 million doses were donated while the rest were purchased by Myanmar.

The Southeast Asian country is still reeling from a third wave of COVID-19. In July alone, 6,000 people died—a record breaking monthly death toll since the outbreak was first reported in the country last year.

Myanmar has mainly relied on jabs from India and China. Originally, it was agreed that the country would receive 27 million doses of vaccine from COVAX, a UN-backed initiative to vaccinate the world’s most vulnerable populations. But since the coup in February, the shipments have been stalled. Another factor was that India became unable to export the amount it previously agreed to sell, as it was hit hard by the delta variant at home. Since then, China has become a lifeline for the regime when it comes to vaccines.

The Myanmar regime’s Wednesday attempt to show solidarity with Beijing on the COVID investigation may be a sign of gratitude for China’s assistance on vaccines. Or the junta may simply have wanted to please its northern neighbor in return for the protection that Beijing (along with Russia) has provided it on the Security Council by vetoing critical resolutions by the West. So far, China and Russia are the only countries that have engaged with the regime, which desperately seeks recognition from other countries as Myanmar’s rightful caretaker government but is shunned by Western nations.

On the other hand, it could also just be following its powerful neighbor’s request to voice which side it is on. If that is the case, regime leader Min Aung Hlaing wouldn’t think twice about doing so, as the US has been a nemesis for past and present Myanmar military rulers, given Washington’s long support to the country’s democracy movement. It should also be noted that the junta’s statement came in the wake of a quiet visit to Myanmar by the Chinese special envoy for Asian affairs. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said the two sides exchanged views on the political landscape in Myanmar and China-Myanmar cooperation on combating COVID-19.

It remains to be seen whether China gets other countries that received its vaccines to follow Myanmar’s lead. If it happens, it may be one of Beijing’s tactics to counter the American push to trace the coronavirus’ origins by generating a collective voice to denounce the US for politicizing, as they say, the issue.

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