Covid-19 not to be called 'Wuhan virus': US and China finally agree

Topics United States | China | Coronavirus

Beijing infuriated the United States last month when a foreign ministry spokesman spread a conspiracy theory that US troops brought the virus to Wuhan. | Photo: Shutterstock
The United States and China have finally reached a truce after a vitriolic feud over calling coronavirus as 'Wuhan virus", with the two powers each seeing at least a tactical interest in cooling down.

President Donald Trump, hardly known for his choice of words, has dropped his provocative term "Chinese virus" and held back from criticizing Beijing's response since a telephone call, on March 26 US time, with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who so insisted on saying "Wuhan virus", has been talking of cooperation.

"We know that this is a global pandemic, and this is the time for every country to work together to resolve that," Pompeo told reporters Tuesday when asked about China.

Beijing infuriated the United States last month when a foreign ministry spokesman spread a conspiracy theory that US troops brought the virus to Wuhan.

Following which, Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to Washington, struck a highly different tone in an op-ed in The New York Times in which he spoke of his affection for Americans and promised China would do "whatever it can to support the United States."

State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus welcomed Cui's remarks but called on China to share virus data and allow free speech. "True cooperation requires transparency and real actions, not just rhetoric," she said.

Whatever the faults were in China's response, many observers saw Trump blaming Beijing as a political ploy as he faces criticism for not acting sooner to stop Covid-19, which has killed more than 12,000 people in the United States. But with depleting medical supplies, Trump also needs China, which produces half of the imported masks in the United States.

"Washington certainly does not want to alienate Beijing to the point that it bans the sale of medical equipment to the United States," said Elizabeth Economy, director of Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"It also reflects a broader sentiment within much of the United States that this is not the time to play an international blame game -- the priority should be on saving American and other lives." Economy said the Trump administration may also feel that it no longer needs to be as upfront, especially when other countries have also stepped up criticism of Beijing. She also doubted that the newfound tone would improve the rest of the relationship, which was already tense before the pandemic.

The Trump administration has vowed to confront China on multiple fronts, including on its human rights record and military buildup, with the State Department just Monday criticizing Beijing over the sinking of a Vietnamese fishing trawler.

From China's standpoint, the friction also has limited benefits, especially when Beijing is seeking to cast itself around the world as a pandemic benefactor.
The State Department's Global Engagement Center, which tracks foreign propaganda, said that Chinese state social media have already phased out conspiracy theories blaming the United States.

For China, the goal is to "keep Trump calm and to try to prevent unnecessary damage from taking place, and keeping that channel open between US and China," said Douglas Paal, a scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Paal, a former Asia adviser to presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, added that China also had an eye on US elections in November.

"China's top priority is to revive global demand for its exports and initially thought that Trump's re-election would be its best outcome, fearing that the rival Democrats would intervene more forcefully on human rights as well as on trade," Paal said. However, he was struck by an overall positive portrayal in Chinese state media of Joe Biden, the likely Democratic nominee.

According to him, Biden as vice president invested heavily in building a relationship with Xi Jinping, also sees a "historic strategic opportunity" to expand its power as Trump has weakened US alliances.

"My reading of the official media suggests that they're less committed to getting Trump re-elected than they were a year ago. And therefore they don't have as many ambitions for doing things with Trump. They can stand back and just take care of their own interests," Paal said.

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