WASHINGTON - China and the United States remain at loggerheads over the origin of the Covid-19 coronavirus, with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo doubling down on allegations that the virus came out of a Level 4, high-security bio lab in Wuhan, and China covered it up and lost the world precious time.
But the administration is being careful to take aim at the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), not China in general.
Since about a week ago, US officials, including Mr Pompeo and Deputy National Security Adviser Matt Pottinger, have been explicitly distinguishing between the CCP and the Chinese people.
Speaking to The Straits Times, State Department spokesman Morgan Ortagus said: "When we have differences of opinion with governments and with their leadership, we always try to be incredibly careful to separate a government from which we may have a particular issue versus the people.
"We actually spend a lot of time trying to message, for example, to the Iranian people, to the Venezuelan people, to the Chinese population.
"We always support these people. We often know that when they live in these authoritarian societies that that's not a choice."
Amid talk in Washington of accountability, Chinese Ambassador to the US Cui Tankai warned in an opinion piece in the Washington Post that "blaming China will not end this pandemic".
"On the contrary, the mindset risks decoupling China and the United States and hurting our efforts to fight the disease, our coordination to reignite the global economy, our ability to conquer other challenges and our prospects of a better future," he wrote in the piece uploaded early on Tuesday (May 5).
"The United States would not emerge as a winner from this scenario," he warned.
But Mr Pompeo doubled down on Tuesday, telling journalists: "China saw… that it had an emerging public health crisis on its hands. They knew.
"China could have prevented the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. China could have spared the world a descent into global economic malaise. They had a choice.
"But instead, China covered up the outbreak in Wuhan," he said.
"Its National Health Commission ordered virus samples destroyed on Jan 3. China 'disappeared' brave Chinese citizens who raised alarms. It deployed its propaganda organs to denounce those who politely called for simple transparency."
In an interview with National Geographic published on Monday, Dr Anthony Fauci, the veteran American physician and immunologist who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said there was no scientific evidence to support the theory that the virus had come from the lab.
All signs indicate that the virus "evolved in nature and then jumped species", he said.
Separately at a press briefing at the Pentagon, Joint Chiefs chairman Mark Milley said "we don't know" whether the virus began in a Chinese lab or a wet market, adding that "the weight of evidence is that it was natural and not man-made".
Pressed to justify his Sunday comment that there was "significant evidence" that the virus had come from the bio lab in Wuhan, Mr Pompeo insisted that that was consistent with others' views.
"We're all trying to figure out the right answer, we're all trying to get to clarity. There are different levels of certainty assessed at different places," he said.
Ms Ortagus told ST over the phone: "The US government cannot say with certainty where this virus emanated from, whether it was in a wet market or in a lab."
But she added: "I would also ask, where is the evidence (that) this emanated from a wet market in Wuhan?
"I don't think that there's a credible scientist or doctor out there who could do a peer review and verify the Chinese Communist Party story that it came from a wet market.
"Maybe it did," she said. "To my knowledge, there's no way that the world can prove that yet, because the Chinese Communist Party still does not allow credible scientists and doctors in to be able to investigate the origins of this virus. And it's important for the world to know the origins of this virus."
Neither side has conclusive evidence to say it is one way or the other, Ms Yun Sun, senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia Programme, and director, China Programme at the Stimson Centre in Washington, DC, told ST.
"But the burden of proof is on the US. The US government would not refrain from using hard evidence if it has it.
"It is also easy to point fingers at China. China doesn't allow the US or anyone to investigate the lab, so it is very easy to challenge (China) by saying, 'If you don't have anything to hide why don't you let us look?'
"But if China does allow US or someone to investigate, it is also impossible to track it because by now the Chinese must have destroyed all the evidence. So there will be no proof, whatsoever, either way."