COVID origin tensions test Biden’s China balancing act

COVID origin tensions test Biden’s China balancing act

President Biden’s balancing act with China is being tested by renewed pressure from Republicans to confront Beijing over the origins of COVID-19, emboldened by a new intelligence assessment favoring the theory that the virus originated in a Chinese lab.

The three-year mystery surrounding the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic — which has killed more than 6.8 million people worldwide — is a key area of tension between the U.S. and China, though it has recently been overshadowed by more immediate crises.

But anger over Beijing’s obstructionism has been reignited by reports over the weekend that the Department of Energy has assessed with “low confidence” that COVID-19 may have leaked from a lab in the Chinese city of Wuhan, along with the World Health Organization (WHO) pausing its investigation into the origins of the virus amid stonewalling in China.

“It is time we move beyond the false belief that the [Chinese Communist Party] will ever deal in good faith,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Tuesday during a hearing with U.S. officials addressing “aggression” by Beijing.

“Time and again, they do not stand behind their commitments. The CCP is acting in their own interest, and it’s time that we start protecting ours.”

The Biden administration said Monday it has “repeatedly pressed” China over COVID’s origins, but Beijing has proven highly sensitive to any criticism over its handling of the pandemic, and it’s unclear how hard Biden is willing to push on the issue given his other priorities involving China.

This includes Biden officials warning Beijing off of supplying lethal aid to Russia amid its war in Ukraine, fallout from the discovery of a Chinese spy balloon violating U.S. airspace, and concerns that the Chinese military is preparing to invade Taiwan within the next five years. 

Yet even some Democrats have said the administration could be doing more regarding China’s role in the global spread of COVID-19. 

“The State Department’s done almost nothing to tell the world how China’s responsible — not, maybe, for the virus, but certainly for their obfuscation and failure to cooperate afterwards,” Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) told Biden officials during the House Foreign Affairs hearing.

“Do people in India and Europe and South America who have lost relatives know that those relatives might be alive if China and its communist party had cooperated with the world in the first few months? The answer to that, I’ll answer for you, is no, because the State Department has done very little to tell the world.”

House Republicans who hold subpoena power as the majority have widened their probes over U.S agencies investigating the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, homing in on the theory that the virus was related to laboratory research. 

And while partisan divides over U.S. policy toward China have increasingly narrowed among Republicans and Democrats, stark divides remain over strategy.

“I think the United States, its elected officials, have to be mindful of stoking the very animosity that would drive us even further apart,” Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.) told The Hill.

“As it relates to the genesis of COVID, I think I speak for most of us in this institution that we’d all like to know, objectively, where it started, and I think it would be appropriate for the Chinese to be participants in that.”

And Sherman’s criticisms against Biden officials appear to be an outlier within his party. The Democratic caucus is largely supportive of the administration’s strategy of seeking out areas of cooperation with Beijing given its massive presence in global affairs, even as it views the Chinese Communist Party as the main threat to global security and stability. 

“I think that the goal of getting to understand the start of the COVID-19 pandemic is to prevent future pandemics and that requires global cooperation,” Rep. Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on global health, told The Hill. 

But the Chinese have shown they are willing to rebuff outreach by the Biden administration as part of their own strategy. 

“I would say unfortunately, sometimes our Chinese friends have used those channels of communication as a source of leverage and that’s unfortunate,” Daniel Kritenbrink, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told the Foreign Affairs panel on Tuesday. 

Chinese officials have aggressively pushed back on criticisms and allegations of its stonewalling investigations into COVID-19’s origins.

“China is the only country that has invited more than once WHO expert groups to come into the country to conduct joint SARS-CoV-2 origins study,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said Tuesday.

The day before, Mao had lashed out that “certain parties should stop rehashing the ‘lab leak’ narrative, stop smearing China and stop politicizing origins-tracing.”

But the WHO has said Chinese officials have failed to provide access to information and data that would allow them to launch a follow-on investigation and that would include whether the COVID-19 virus is linked to a laboratory, in particular allegations that the Wuhan Institute of Virology was ground zero for the pandemic. 

An investigation conducted by the WHO in early 2021 was criticized by the U.S. and 13 other countries over concerns that the initial WHO investigation was subject to “interference and undue influence.” 

“We have repeatedly and publicly said that the origin needs investigating and China must provide access and info” for a follow on investigation to occur, WHO spokesperson Tarik Jašarević told Politico, “and if this doesn’t happen, efforts to understand the origins will remain rather stymied.”  

White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Monday that the intelligence community has not reached a consensus on how COVID started and raised criticism that China is obstructing the chance to find answers. 

“We have consistently made it clear that we want China’s full cooperation in a full, transparent way with the investigations into COVID,” Kirby said.

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