BEIJING - Chinese and foreign ministers of Southeast Asian nations have decided to hold an emergency meeting in Laos next week over the recent outbreak of a new pneumonia-causing coronavirus raging across mainland China, diplomatic sources said Tuesday.
The gathering would be convened as proposed by China, which wants to tie up with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to curb a further spread of the new virus, which has so far infected more than 40,000 people and killed over 1,000, the sources said.
Beijing is apparently eager to hold such a meeting in an attempt to maintain its influence over ASEAN at a time when the grouping is coordinating on a special summit meeting with the United States in March, foreign affairs experts said.
Last week, China proposed a foreign ministerial gathering with the ASEAN nations, according to the diplomatic sources. Beijing has been struggling to contain the spread of the new virus first detected late last year in the central city of Wuhan, a major business hub.
Top diplomats of China and Southeast Asian countries along the Mekong River including Thailand were originally scheduled to gather next week. On the sidelines of it, Chinese and ASEAN foreign ministers are now expected to meet on Feb. 20, the sources said.
Some of the ASEAN nations -- Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam -- have recently become inclined to restrict traffic to and from China in the wake of the epidemic.
By showing its strong commitment to preventing the virus from spreading, China is likely to try to dispel criticism about shortcomings in its initial response to the outbreak, which has been increasing among ASEAN countries, the source said.
The ASEAN nations, meanwhile, have already reached a substantial agreement to hold a summit with the United States in mid-March in Las Vegas, based on an invitation by US President Donald Trump, the sources said.
The US president extended the invitation after he skipped ASEAN-related summits that took place last November in Bangkok, disappointing the leaders of the region with his absence from the bloc's most important annual event for a second straight year.
For China's part, it has remained at odds with some ASEAN countries like the Philippines and Vietnam over territorial claims in the South China Sea, while competing with the United States for influence in Southeast Asia.
Claiming sovereignty over almost the entire maritime area, China has rapidly built artificial islands with military infrastructure in the sea - one of the world's busiest shipping lanes.