COVID-19 SPECIAL

Coronavirus: Sino-US war of words abating, but thaw likely momentary

Mood eased after US stops using 'Chinese virus' label, Beijing spokesman backpedals on blame

The war of words between China and the US raised fears of anti-Chinese prejudice in the US.
The war of words between China and the US raised fears of anti-Chinese prejudice in the US.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

President Donald Trump and top American officials have stopped pointedly referring to the Covid-19 virus as the "Chinese virus" and China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Zhao Lijian has backpedalled on earlier remarks blaming the US for the coronavirus.

This points to at least a momentary thaw in a plunging relationship, potentially traceable to Mr Trump's hour-long conversation with China's President Xi Jinping on March 27, analysts say. "We are working closely together. Much respect!" Mr Trump tweeted after the call.

"In private, US officials say they stopped reminding the world of where this mess originated, once Beijing stopped its mendacious propaganda accusing the US of bringing Covid-19 to Wuhan," Dr James Carafano, director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Centre for Foreign Policy Studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation, wrote on Tuesday for Fox News. "Indeed, senior Chinese officials have now publicly disavowed the most egregious accusations against the US."

The Chinese spokesman, Mr Zhao, on Tuesday told reporters in his first briefing in weeks - after tweeting on March 12 that it "might be US Army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan" - that he was only trying to get back at American politicians stigmatising China, and emphasised that the question was raised "on my personal Twitter account".

Separately, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Tuesday told reporters that the United States will commit an additional US$225 million (S$321 million) to the global effort to reduce transmission of the virus. "No country can match this level of generosity," he said, noting that the US had already provided US$274 million to 64 countries.

This is seen as an effort to match Beijing's diplomatic offensive, which is being played up by China's state media. The Central Committee's International Department has donated medical supplies and humanitarian aid to more than 70 political parties and party organisations in over 40 countries, its spokesman Hu Zhaoming tweeted on Tuesday.

Chinese telecommunications company Huawei has joined the "mask diplomacy", delivering over one million masks, 50,000 pairs of gloves and 30,000 goggles to Canada, Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail reported on Monday, citing a source.

Other Chinese donors include the Bank of China, Trip.com, billionaire Jack Ma and his Alibaba Foundation as well as Tencent, the Globe and Mail noted.

Huawei is seeking approval to install its 5G technology on Canadian mobile networks. It is also seeking the release of chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, who was arrested in Vancouver in 2018 and is accused by the US of violating sanctions against Iran.

 
 
 
 

The war of words between China and the US raised fears of anti-Chinese prejudice in the US, where there has been an increase in random attacks on Asian Americans. This has been matched by anti-foreigner sentiment on Chinese social media. Thus the thaw, and calls for cooperation, are seen as encouraging - even if temporary.

"China has every reason to ramp down the blame game," Dr Carafano wrote. "Its over-the-top propaganda angered not just US officials but also the British, the EU, the Australians and more.

"Even more troubling for Beijing may be the growing number of voices in the US calling for us to disengage from Chinese suppliers entirely. This would not be good for either side, but it's got to be Beijing's very worst nightmare," he wrote.

Ms Yun Sun, director of the China Programme at the Stimson Centre in Washington, told The Straits Times: "The Chinese tactical goals were twofold: to pin the origin of the virus on someone else, anyone else; and to retaliate against name-calling by some US politicians.

"But when Trump stepped in to call it 'Chinese virus', he showed his willingness to escalate, and the harm from Chinese name-calling exceeded its benefits."

But, she cautioned, the pause is only a temporary one in a worsening relationship.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 09, 2020, with the headline 'Sino-US war of words abating, but thaw likely momentary'. Subscribe