The war of words between China and the United States continued on Wednesday (March 18) as President Donald Trump said there was nothing wrong in calling the novel coronavirus a “Chinese virus”, stressing that it had originated in China.
Mr Trump’s comment came as the State Department pushed back against Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian’s attempt to attribute the pandemic to the American military, labelling it “irresponsible and unacceptable”.
Asked at a daily press briefing on the Covid-19 crisis about his increasingly frequent and emphatic use of the term “Chinese virus”, Mr Trump said he did not think it was at all racist.
“It comes from China, that’s why,” he said.
He added : “I have great love for all of the people from our country, but as you know China tried to say at one point… that it was caused by American soldiers. That can’t happen. It’s not gonna happen, not as long as I’m President. It comes from China.”
A senior State Department official who spoke to journalists backed up Mr Trump’s assertion.
“By my calculation, it took a month for the WHO to actually be allowed into the country to investigate,” he said.
“We’ve tried to cooperate when there was still an opportunity to resolve this before it became a global pandemic,” he said. “So we did offer up US$100 million (S$144.60 million) for China and globally for dealing with this thing.”
“We were able to use it in South-east Asia and other places. We did deliver 17.8 tonnes of equipment early on to Wuhan to help them as we knew that they were having trouble with medical equipment and masks.”
“About the language… the reason we want that to be out in the clear is so that not just China, but the world, can assess this, and then make plans and deal with it when it happens again.”
On Tuesday, Beijing demanded that American journalists working for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Washington Post, whose credentials are due to expire before the end of 2020, hand back their press cards within 10 days – in effect expelling them.
China cast the move as retaliation.
On March 18, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement said “the US government has placed unwarranted restrictions on Chinese media agencies and personnel in the US, purposely made things difficult for their normal reporting assignments, and subjected them to growing discrimination and politically-motivated oppression”.
It noted that the US had told Chinese media organisations in the country to register as “foreign agents” and in February 2020 designated five Chinese media entities in the US as “foreign missions”.
That led to a cap on the number of employees at these organisations, in effect expelling Chinese journalists from the US.
“Such outrageous treatment prompted strong representations from China, in which China firmly objected to and strongly condemned the US move, and stressed its reserved right to respond and take actions,” the ministry said.
In Washington on Wednesday, the senior official told reporters China’s accusations of oppression of journalists from the Chinese media were “fantastic and fictional”.
“Anybody who’s lived in China, either in the media or as a diplomat, knows that you are treated far differently in the PRC than you are here as far as openness, access, and all the rest,” the senior official said. “Our response has been… looking to build some reciprocity in this relationship.”
“We asked their media that are sponsored by the Chinese Communist Party (to) acknowledge that through determining that they were foreign missions.”
“The response by the Chinese… has been mixed and in some ways I think overly – they sort of overreacted,” he said.
“It’s a strategic competition, therefore we treat each other the same. Because we’re resisting in the media space and the economic space, they’re having a much more difficult time advancing their interests.”
“So we’re getting a much more shrill narrative from the PRC,” he said.
Both countries and their governments feel vulnerable, said Ms Yun Sun, senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia Programme, and director, China Programme, at the Stimson Centre in DC.
“The crisis is affecting the US economy and Trump’s re-election campaign,” she said.
“China is afraid of becoming the “enemy of the globe” for being the source of the virus. Both governments are trying to shed responsibility and blame it on each other.”
“But China is definitely more forceful,” she said. “Now China has the virus under control at home for the time being, it has the free hands to come (up) with more offensives, such as the… expulsion of US reporters. This is an escalation from the earlier US restrictions on the Chinese state media. The US is behind the curve on the virus control, so its attention is bogged down… fighting the virus for now.”