(Bloomberg) -- The U.S. says China won’t let its health workers help fight the virus. Beijing says they’re welcome to come. The World Health Organization says nothing has been decided.
The confusion surrounding a planned WHO mission of experts to China shows how lingering mistrust between the world’s biggest economies could hamper efforts to combat a pathogen quickly spreading across the globe. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the world’s preeminent public health agency, has often played a key role coordinating and funding global efforts to contain past outbreaks, including of Ebola.
U.S. epidemiologists, virologists and medical doctors could assist China in measuring the effectiveness of their response, said Yanzhong Huang, a senior fellow for global health at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations. They could also help prepare for a broader outbreak, provide technical advice, improve the bio-safety of Chinese labs and even improve treatment protocols and medicine combinations for patients, he said.
“My hunch is that all of this is politicized,” said Huang, who also directs the Seton Hall University’s Center for Global Health Studies. “That’s made pure public health cooperation difficult.”
The failure to cooperate on a pressing global health issue that has killed almost 1,400 people and infected more than 64,000 others shows just how much the relationship between the U.S. and China has deteriorated over the past few years. While President Donald Trump often touts his relationship with China’s Xi Jinping, the strategic competition between the countries has only deepened since they signed their “phase-one” trade deal last month.
The U.S. this week charged members of China’s military over one of the biggest data thefts in American history. On Thursday, Washington also increased the charges against Huawei Technologies Co. Chief Financial Officer Meng Wanzhou -- who is currently fighting extradition to the U.S. from Canada -- to include racketeering conspiracy charges, which claim the Chinese company engaged in decades of intellectual property theft.
Members of the Trump administration also hit out at China over its response to the virus, even while the president himself has offered praise.
“We thought there was going to be more transparency, but we’re a bit disappointed,” Larry Kudlow, director of the U.S. National Economic Council, said Thursday. “We’re more than willing to work with the UN WHO on this, and they won’t let us. I don’t know what their motives are. I do know that apparently more and more people are suffering over there, and that’s not a good thing.”
On Friday, Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said China had worked with the international community in “an open, transparent and highly responsible manner.” He added that Chinese officials have been in regular contact with American counterparts to exchange information about the epidemic.
“We welcome foreign experts’ participation in the China-WHO Joint Mission, including those from the U.S.,” Geng said in Beijing.
Still, the WHO said Friday that nothing had been resolved. “We are still awaiting confirmation on the composition and program for the joint mission of experts,” Teena Nery, a representative for the WHO in China, said by email.
After initial praise for China’s efforts, evidence that provincial officials censored early reports of the outbreak -- allowing the virus to spread unchecked -- fueled criticism around the world, as well as within China. Authorities in Beijing are now also trying to balance containment measures with efforts to maintain political stability and minimize the economic fallout.
“Beijing remains deeply concerned about the potential for foreign criticism of its containment efforts,” said Carl Minzner, a law professor at Fordham Law School, who wrote a recent book on how China’s authoritarianism is undermining its rise. “They fear that negative analysis by authoritative foreign experts -- whether justified or not -- might feed domestic popular distrust or discontent with how Chinese officials have handled the epidemic.”
Part of the worry is economic: Vice Premier Hu Chunhua has “called for all-out efforts to ensure stable employment amid the novel coronavirus outbreak,” according to the official Xinhua News Agency. Chinese officials have repeatedly slammed the U.S. for imposing harsh travel restrictions, while praising traditional developing country allies in Asia -- including Pakistan and Cambodia -- for expressing support, keeping flights routes open and even declining to evacuate their citizens.
Battling against the global coronavirus outbreak together could’ve been an opportunity to forge closer U.S.-China ties, according to Susan Shirk, a former deputy assistant secretary of state responsible for U.S. policy toward China, Taiwan and Mongolia.
“The epidemic is a lost opportunity to rebuild some goodwill between China and America and other countries,” said Shirk, who is now a professor and chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego.
She said China hasn’t provided any channel or outlet for people around the world who want to help, and has undermined foreign and local non-government organizations that typically provide relief during disasters. But she added that part of the blame lies with U.S. political leaders, who have not expressed much sympathy for Chinese citizens “enduring a terrifying experience in quarantines.”
In the U.S., the Congressional Executive Commission on China -- a group headed by U.S. lawmakers to monitor human rights -- has blasted Beijing for silencing Li Wenliang, the doctor who raised the alarm about the virus and later died from it, and for detaining citizen journalists documenting the response.
“Transparency is key to addressing a global health crisis, not censorship or repression,” the commission said on Twitter.
Secretary of State Michael Pompeo further irked China with a speech this week in which he warned U.S. state governors that their pension funds could be investing in companies that help China’s military and repress Muslims in its western Xinjiang region, which China’s ambassador to the U.S., Cui Tiankai, said was “totally wrong.”
“Competition with China is happening inside of your state and it affects our capacity to perform America’s vital national-security functions,” Pompeo told the governors. “Competition with China is not just a federal issue.”
On Friday, China’s Geng spent about as much time criticizing Pompeo as addressing concerns about the virus response.
“A sound and stable bilateral relationship serves the interests of both countries and is what the international community wants to see,” Geng said. “We advise certain people in the U.S. step out of their Cold War mindset and ideological stereotypes, stop discrediting China’s political system, and stop undermining bilateral exchange and cooperation.”
To contact the reporters on this story: Iain Marlow in Hong Kong at firstname.lastname@example.org;Dandan Li in Beijing at email@example.com;Peter Martin in Beijing at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Scott at email@example.com, Daniel Ten Kate
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