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Trump’s shifting views on China and coronavirus raises long-term concerns

World News | Published:

The president has regularly shifted between blaming China for the outbreak and praising the country’s response.

Virus Outbreak Trump

There are concerns that President Donald Trump’s shifting positions on China and the coronavirus is further destabilising a critical relationship between Washington and Beijing.

There might not be radical shifts in US-China policy during the next several months, but China’s cover-up and disinformation campaign will colour the relationship going forward, according to Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

“It’s very hard to see progress on trade talks after this,” he said.

He added that he expects the US government will push to address American dependence on China for medical and other manufacturing supplies.

Anticipating a backlash over calls to hold China accountable for initially covering up the outbreak, China’s official Xinhua News Agency last month suggested that Beijing could retaliate against the US by banning the export of medical products that would leave America stuck in the “ocean of viruses”.

Early in the outbreak, Mr Trump lauded China for its response to Covid-19, tweeting on January 24 that the US appreciated Beijing’s efforts and “transparency,” even though local Chinese officials initially covered up mounting cases in the initial epicentre of Wuhan.

Then the president started going after Beijing, repeatedly calling Covid-19 the “Chinese virus”.

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He said he was upset that some Chinese officials had suggested without evidence that the US military transported the virus to Wuhan or that the virus was released from a US lab.

The president has said China was trying to blame the United States to distract the world from the shortcomings of Beijing’s own response.

“It could have been stopped in its tracks,” Mr Trump said March 19 at a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House.

“Unfortunately, they (Chinese officials) didn’t decide to make it public. But the whole world is suffering because of it.”

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Now the president is praising Chinese President Xi Jinping again.

“We have a great trade deal and we would like to keep it. They would like to keep it and the relationship is good,” Mr Trump said on Wednesday.

He noted that some of China’s numbers on Covid-19 cases seem a bit “low,” but he insisted his relationship with President Xi remained “really good”.

Ray Yip, an American public health official who founded the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention’s office in China in 2003, said expert teams sent to Wuhan failed to initially realise that the virus could spread from human to human, which compounded the consequences.

However once the Chinese government understood the scope of the problem, it moved decisively, he said.

Chinese health officials informed the World Health Organisation (WHO) about the new virus on December 31.

By January 12, Chinese scientists had sequenced the virus’ genetic makeup and shared it with the WHO, drawing praise for their transparency and swift action.

Mr Yip contends the US response was far worse than China’s.

“If we started responding forcibly, properly, tracked down the cases and snuffed them out, it didn’t have to spread,” Mr Yip said.

“We let an initial small fire spread, and now the fire is too big — we have trouble putting it out.

If there is such a thing as suing for malpractice for public health — this has to be it.”

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