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U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper speaks about the coronavirus at the White House on April 1, 2020.

Alex Brandon/The Associated Press

Russia and China are taking advantage of the coronavirus emergency to put their interests forward in Europe, U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper said on Monday, describing Chinese efforts to promote Huawei mobile phone network equipment as malign.

“(The United States) is aware that some (countries) will try to use the pandemic as a way to invest in critical industry and infrastructure, with effect on security in the long term,” Esper told newspaper La Stampa, when asked whether China and Russia were trying to gain influence in Italy by sending aid.

“Potential opponents will almost certainly try to use their interest to put their interests forward and create divisions in NATO and Europe,” he said. “Huawei and 5G are an important example of this malign activity by China.”

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Coronavirus guide: Updates and essential resources about the COVID-19 pandemic

Esper’s comments come at a time when some U.S. officials have blamed China for the coronavirus outbreak. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Sunday Washington had evidence the disease emerged from a Chinese lab, which Beijing strongly denies.

Both China and Russia have offered support to Italy, sending doctors, medical equipment and face masks to the country which was the first in Europe to be hit hard by the outbreak.

The United States has long advised countries to boycott Huawei, the world’s biggest maker of telecoms equipment, in setting up new 5G mobile phone networks, and also to scrutinise gear from another Chinese firm, ZTE.

Washington says the equipment could be used by China to spy on communications. Huawei and ZTE deny their gear poses a security threat.

“Dependence on Chinese suppliers could make crucial systems vulnerable to interruption, manipulation and espionage. This would put at risk our capacity to communicate and to share intelligence,” Esper said.

Russia’s assistance, including army medical staff, drew attention to the limited support Italy received from the European Union, and EU and NATO diplomats and officials have seen it as a geopolitical move.

Samantha Power was a U.S. ambassador to the United Nations under the Obama administration. She says a post-coronavirus, and possibly post-Trump, world is one where medium powers like Canada can form new blocs of cooperation. Ms. Power was in conversation with Rudyard Griffiths of the Munk Debates. The Globe and Mail

Sign up for the Coronavirus Update newsletter to read the day’s essential coronavirus news, features and explainers written by Globe reporters and editors.

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