Badly strained ties between the United States and China are deteriorating further with the two sides hurling harsh accusations and bitter name-calling over responsibility for the spread of the novel coronavirus.
The global pandemic is just one in a series of irritants that has rocked the relationship between Washington and Beijing since the Trump administration began to step up long-simmering confrontations on issues ranging from territory to trade to high-tech telecommunications.
The virus, however, has exposed an even deeper rift, one that widened yet again on Tuesday when China announced the expulsion of a number of American journalists. The move underscored the growing mutual mistrust and hostility between the world’s two largest economies.
Since the virus has spread, President Donald Trump and his top aides, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have stepped up their criticism of China, noting consistently that the outbreak was first reported in the Chinese city of Wuhan in late 2019. They have referred to the virus as the “Wuhan virus” or the “Chinese virus” on multiple occasions, disregarding World Health Organization terminology that avoids identifying it by geography.
On Tuesday alone, Trump discussed the Chinese source of virus outbreak during at least two events and denied there was any stigma attached to the label. On Wednesday, he tweeted at Americans who are facing economic hardship caused by the pandemic that “the onslaught of the Chinese Virus is not your fault.”
At a State Department news conference, Pompeo referred six times to the virus as the “Wuhan virus” and suggested the Chinese are attempting to distract the world from the shortcomings of its initial response by highlighting its tough measures that have helped contain the outbreak. Pompeo also suggested that an “after action” report would corroborate his claim, indicating that the tensions are unlikely to end when the pandemic is over.
Experts are not unsympathetic to that position.
“They made some blunderous mistakes in the early six or seven weeks, and then they came down hard with a gargantuan quarantine,” said J. Stephen Morrison, director of the Global Health Policy Center at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, referring to China.
“And they now control the narrative that this has been hugely successful and they suppress whatever additional dissident thoughts there may be on exactly what’s going on,” he told reporters in a conference call.
In a meeting with hotel executives at the White House, Trump took pains to make clear that the virus originated in China, asking pointed questions of Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson about where the impact was first felt.
“And this all started in China? That’s where you first saw the problem and where you first got hit?” Trump asked.
“Absolutely,” Sorenson replied.
“Hopefully, you all heard that,” Trump told reporters.
Pompeo has led a worldwide campaign to try to stop countries from allowing the Chinese high-tech giant Huawei to get access to next-generation wireless networks and repeatedly warned about the dangers of Chinese investment. On Tuesday, he spoke of a “special responsibility” that China had shirked when it discovered the virus outbreak in Wuhan.
“We know that the first government to be aware of the Wuhan virus was the Chinese government,” Pompeo told reporters. “That imposes a special responsibility, to raise the flag to say: ‘We have a problem, this is different and unique and present risks.’ And it took an awful long time for the world to become aware of this risk, that was sitting there, residing inside of China.”
Having already been targeted by Trump in a trade war and by Pompeo and others for repression of Muslim and other religious and ethnic minorities in western Xinjiang Province, the Chinese have taken particular offense to the constant repetition, complaining vociferously and suggesting that the U.S. military may have actually introduced the virus to Wuhan.
“Recently, some American politicians have linked the new coronavirus with China to stigmatize China. We express strong indignation and opposition to it,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Tuesday. “We urge the U.S. to immediately correct its mistakes and stop unwarranted accusations against China.”
That, in turn, has prompted angry U.S. protests with the State Department hauling in China’s ambassador to the United States to complain and Pompeo calling the top Chinese diplomat to re-register the anger.
“The disinformation campaign that they are waging is designed to shift responsibility,” Pompeo said, before quickly adding that “now is not the time for recriminations.”
Yet recriminations seem to be the order of the day.
“China was putting out information which was false — that our military gave this to them,” Trump said. “That was false. And rather than having an argument I said I have to call it where it came from. It did come from China. So I think it’s a very accurate term. But no, I didn’t appreciate the fact that China was saying that our military gave it to them.”
Shortly after Trump’s comments, the Chinese foreign ministry announced the expulsion of American reporters from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post. China said the move was a reciprocal response to the Trump administration’s designation of five Chinese media outlets as foreign missions and restricting the number of Chinese who could work for them.
China described its steps as “necessary and reciprocal countermeasures that China is compelled to take in response to the unreasonable oppression the Chinese media organizations experience in the U.S.”
Pompeo rejected that.
“I regret China’s decision today to further foreclose the world’s ability to conduct free press operations that frankly, would be really good, really good for the Chinese people in these incredibly challenging global times. Where more information, more transparency are what will save lives. This is unfortunate,” he said. “I hope they will reconsider.”
For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. In mainland China, where the virus first exploded, more than 81,000 people have been diagnosed and more than 69,000 have recovered.