At the end of March, US President Donald Trump and his Chinese counterpart, President Xi Jinping, agreed in a phone call on cooperation between their respective governments in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. In the same phone conversation, both leaders favoured a “truce” in the war of words between China and the United States. Earlier on, and immediately after the outbreak of the coronavirus, President Trump in his press briefings used the term “the Chinese virus,” and when asked why, he said the virus originated in China. The truce agreed on between the two presidents meant that the spirit of cooperation precludes the use of such terms, whether or not the result of purpose, that antagonised the Chinese leadership.
This much-hoped for truce proved to be short-lived, unfortunately.
With the pandemic hitting the United States fiercely, the US administration changed tactics and the war of words between Washington and Beijing resumed, but this time in the context of a strategy aiming at laying the blame for the pandemic and economic devastation it has caused around the world on China.
The apparent objective of the US administration is to investigate the origin of the coronavirus. In order to establish the truth, it needs access to the Wuhan Institute of Virology. One of the theories that tries to explain where and how the coronavirus started has been that some kind of an unintentional accident happened at the institute. It is known as the “lab theory”. However, there has been a near consensus among scientists and intelligence officials and analysts that there has been no hard evidence to corroborate it. And the Chinese government has officially dismissed the theory.
Notwithstanding Chinese denials, the US administration has tasked its intelligence community to investigate the matter further. On Thursday, 30 April, President Trump said that there are a lot of theories, but “we have people looking at it very, very strongly. Scientific people, intelligence people and others.” Answering a reporter at the White House on the same day, Trump stressed that he had intelligence that supported the idea, meaning the lab theory. He added that he was not “allowed” to share the intelligence, and that experts are studying various theories about the origin of the coronavirus.
On the same day, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said that the intelligence community “will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan”. Furthermore, the intelligence community concurs with the “wide scientific consensus that COVID19 virus was not man-made or genetically-modified”.
That position was bolstered by an article penned by five renowned scientists published in March in Nature Medicine, in which the five said they do not believe “any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible”. Still, Richard Grenel, the acting director of National Intelligence, told intelligence agencies to make a priority of determining the origin of the coronavirus, as cited in The New York Times last week.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, one of the leading hawks within the Trump administration in targeting China, told Hugh Hewitt, a conservative radio host, that the administration knows that the “Chinese Communist Party, when it began to evaluate what to do inside of Wuhan, considered whether the WIV (the Wuhan Institute of Virology) was in fact the place where this came from”. Secretary Pompeo, talking to Simon Conway of News Radio 1040, on Friday, 1 May, was more emphatic in this regard when he told his host that the “Chinese Communist Party has a special responsibility to explain how this happened, to let the world come in to see what took place”, and added that, “we need the Chinese Communist Party to begin to be a better partner here for lots of reasons,” and not necessarily directly linked to the question of the coronavirus. It goes without saying that the emphasis on the ruling Chinese Communist Party indirectly means President Xi Jinping.
As late as Sunday, 3 May, the US secretary of state reiterated his accusations against China and this time left no doubt that the US administration has irrefutable evidence that the virus originated in the Wuhan lab. Talking to Martha Raddatz of ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, he said that, “we can confirm that the Chinese Communist Party did all it could to make sure that the world did not learn in a timely fashion about what was taking place,” and stressed that the United States will hold “those responsible accountable and we will do so on a timeline that is our own”.
The Spokesman of the Chinese Foreign Ministry Geng Shuang, commented 27 April that China does not know the motive behind calling for an investigation, seeking damages and compensation, and made it clear that it is a “political manipulation”.
Furthermore, the Chinese government warned the European Union against accusing China in the same way the Trump administration has done.
Two weeks ago, the German tabloid Bild talked about charging the Chinese government more than $160 billion as compensation for what it termed a “failure” in containing the virus within its borders. Unsurprisingly enough, the US president talked of a lot more in terms of financial compensation. On Monday, 26 April, Trump said the United States is “talking about a lot more money than Germany is talking about”. He believes the virus could have been stopped quickly, and it would not have spread all over the world, had the Chinese side been more transparent.
It is difficult to imagine the Chinese government agreeing to pay financial compensation, be it to the United States or to any other government.
Surely there is a need for transparency as to the reasons behind the spread of the coronavirus within China and its origins. This calls for international cooperation decoupled from domestic political considerations. Scapegoating won’t be of any help in the pursuit of the truth.
Ryan Hass, a senior director in the Obama administration’s National Security Council, and now with the Brookings Institution, said that “in a normal functioning administration, my advice would be to identify practical ways where the United States and China can pool resources and expertise to help get the global spread of coronavirus under control.” He thinks that such an approach is “a bridge too far for the current administration, sadly.”
Let’s hope that the Trump administration will prove him wrong and we will witness American-Chinese cooperation in the months ahead to defeat the coronavirus pandemic.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 May, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly