Trump steps up virus blame game, hints at punishing China

People waiting for food from a Brooklyn charity in New York on Thursday, amid rising unemployment. President Donald Trump has increasingly attacked Beijing's handling of the virus outbreak as the fallout batters the American economy in an election ye
People waiting for food from a Brooklyn charity in New York on Thursday, amid rising unemployment. President Donald Trump has increasingly attacked Beijing's handling of the virus outbreak as the fallout batters the American economy in an election year. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

The United States is intensifying its push to blame and potentially punish China for the Covid-19 pandemic, as President Donald Trump on Thursday claimed to have seen evidence linking the outbreak to a Wuhan laboratory, while declining to give reporters any details.

Mr Trump also did not rule out fresh tariffs or writing off part of US debt to China in retaliation, telling Reuters in a separate interview: "There are many things I can do."

He added that "China will do anything they can to have me lose (the election)", a claim that Beijing rejected as it said it had no interest in interfering in US' internal affairs.

Said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang: "For some time, certain US politicians, in disregard of the facts, have attempted to shift their own responsibility for their poor handling of the epidemic to others."

Mr Trump has increasingly attacked Beijing's handling of the outbreak as the fallout from the pandemic becomes more pronounced, battering the American economy and denting Mr Trump's approval ratings in an election year.

While scientists worldwide confirmed the virus was neither created in a lab nor purposefully manipulated, speculation has swirled in recent weeks over whether the virus could have leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology.

The complex of research facilities where bat viruses have been studied is located near a market linked to many initial coronavirus cases in Wuhan, a coincidence that Mr Trump, other top American officials and right-wing media outlets have latched onto and publicly discussed without evidence so far.

The US intelligence community released a statement on Thursday confirming that it was looking into the origins of the virus, but ruled out theories that it was man-made or genetically modified.

"The intelligence community will continue to rigorously examine emerging information and intelligence to determine whether the outbreak began through contact with infected animals or if it was the result of an accident at a laboratory in Wuhan," the Office of the Director of National Intelligence said.

The New York Times reported on Thursday that Trump administration officials are pressuring American intelligence agencies to find evidence that might support the lab leak theory.

The article cited concerns from analysts that assessments about the virus could be distorted.

Eurasia Group analysts said the growing calls to punish China risked further hurting the already strained US-China relationship.

And given the growing support for retaliation within the administration and Congress, odds are rising that President Trump could make a political calculation that going after China was more useful than maintaining the phase one trade war truce, they said on Thursday.

A Eurasia Group report last week concluded that the US-China relationship was at its lowest point in decades and headed lower, given the upcoming election in the US.

China-bashing would be a central element of the Trump campaign against Democratic presumptive nominee Joe Biden, who has also attacked Mr Trump for being soft on China, noted the analysts.

Mr Trump would also face "a strong temptation to castigate China as he deflects blame for a rising death toll and economic damage from the coronavirus pandemic, and taps growing anti-China sentiment in the US", they added.

"There is broad anger over China's role in the pandemic among the electorate and political class," they wrote. "Both parties will embrace efforts to investigate and potentially punish China, though for Republicans, these efforts are also a central part of the strategy to deflect blame for the Trump administration's own mishandling of the public health crisis."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2020, with the headline 'Trump steps up virus blame game, hints at punishing China'. Subscribe