Coronavirus: China-US tit-for-tat claims cast shadow over G20 crisis talks

Teddy Ng

Chinese and Americans are persisting with finger-pointing over the coronavirus crisis despite a senior Chinese diplomat stressing the need for the two countries to cooperate to contain the pandemic.

The accusations cast doubt over whether the United States and China will agree to work together when their top leaders take part in a Group of 20 virtual summit on the crisis on Thursday.

Earlier in the day, Chinese vice-minister for foreign affairs, Luo Zhaohui, said China and the US must team up to fight the pandemic and not let their efforts be hampered by differences on other issues or xenophobic slurs by politicians.

“We hope to jointly fight the epidemic with the world, including the US,” Luo said.

“A global issue requires multinational cooperation. China and the US are both taking leading roles in epidemic-related drug development, so our cooperation will benefit each other and all humanity.”

G20 leaders are expected to discuss a global response to the health crisis that has already killed more than 20,000 people and infected over 450,000.

According to a draft statement to be discussed at the summit – which will take place via videoconference – the leaders are expected to agree that the coronavirus is a common threat to humanity and that united efforts are required to fight it.

They are also expected to establish a mechanism to share information to combat the illness, and help less-developed nations.

But diplomatic observers have questioned how long such a truce will hold, with Chinese and American diplomats continuing to make tit-for-tat allegations.

In an opinion piece in The Times, US ambassador to London Woody Johnson said China had endangered the world by suppressing information about the coronavirus outbreak thus allowing it to spread worldwide.

“Had China done the right things at the right time, more of its own population, and the rest of the world, might have been spared the most serious impact of this disease,” the ambassador wrote.

Johnson’s boss, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, went further in a virtual Group of Seven meeting on Wednesday, saying the bloc was united in opposing China’s “disinformation”.

Pompeo, a sharp critic of Beijing who has gone on the offensive over what he calls the “Wuhan virus”, said he shared a common view with the top diplomats of the other G7 countries – Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy and Japan.

“Every one of the nations that were at that meeting this morning was deeply aware of the disinformation campaign that the Chinese Communist Party is engaged in to try and deflect from what has really taken place,” Pompeo said.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China strongly condemned Pompeo’s remarks, including his use of the term “Wuhan virus”.

“The moves by this US politician are counter to the international consensus and continue to stigmatise China, smearing China’s efforts, trying to use this to shift attention and blame with extremely malicious intent,” he said.

Over the past weeks, the US has criticised China, where the outbreak was first reported, for its slow initial response and attempts to silence people who raised the alarm about Covid-19, the disease caused by the previously unknown coronavirus. But Beijing said it had informed the US in early January.

By Thursday, two posts on the Twitter-like Weibo account of the US embassy in Beijing described the coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus”.

Trump also angered Beijing by describing Covid-19 as the “Chinese virus”. He stopped using the term this week after accusations of racism.

Although he stopped using the term “Chinese virus”, Trump said he did not “regret” making the reference by pointing to claims from the Chinese side, referring to a tweet by a Chinese diplomat spreading the conspiracy theory that the virus may have been brought to China by US soldiers.

Tensions first showed signs of easing on Sunday when China’s ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, told US news site Axios that it was “crazy” to spread rumours about the coronavirus originating from a military laboratory in the United States.

Cui added that it was “very harmful” for journalists and diplomats to speculate about the pathogen’s origins.

US State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus welcomed Cui’s comment on Tuesday.

“Saving lives is more important than saving face,” she wrote on Twitter.

Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University in Beijing, said that while tensions had eased, partly because Trump did not wish to harm Asian-Americans, this state of affairs might not last long.

“I believe both sides have shown a willingness to cool down the situation,” he said. “But I don’t think the finger-pointing will just end with this, as the origin of the virus still matters a lot for public opinion.”

Lu Xiang, a US specialist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said it was difficult to expect the US to soften its position.

“Trump has corrected the phrasing himself but he still allows Pompeo to speak that way. It is counterproductive to the US and the world,” Lu said.

The US has reported 54,453 cases and 737 deaths from Covid-19, with more than half of the infections in New York.

Mainland China reported 67 new infections on Wednesday, all of them imported, taking its total to 81,285. The National Health Commission said there were six new deaths, increasing the number of fatalities to 3,287. A total of 74,051 patients have recovered.

Additional reporting by Wendy Wu and Agence France-Presse

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