US intensifies blame game; Trump officials said to be pressuring spy agencies to link coronavirus to Wuhan lab

US President Donald Trump did not rule out fresh tariffs or writing off part of US debt to China. PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - The United States is intensifying its push to blame and potentially punish China for the Covid-19 pandemic as President Donald Trump on Thursday (April 30) 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."

Mr Trump added that "China will do anything they can to have me lose this race", a claim that Beijing rejected as it said it had no interest in interfering in America's 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 has become more pronounced, battering the American economy and denting Mr Trump's approval ratings in an election year.

While scientists around the world have confirmed that 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," said the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

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.

The White House is also exploring various options to punish China for its handling of the outbreak, according to American media reports. The Washington Post reported that officials have discussed stripping China of its sovereign immunity so that the US can sue China for damages, although this would be legally difficult to accomplish.

There have also been preliminary discussions on the possibility of the US cancelling part of its debt obligations to China, said the report. Mr Trump said on Thursday that taking that route would hurt the sanctity of the US dollar and that there were other ways of hurting China like with tariffs.

Eurasia Group analysts said that while the debt cancellation was not a credible threat, 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 were 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.

"It's clear that US political winds are blowing sharply against China. In this environment, other retaliatory ideas are more plausible," they said in a note on Thursday, citing additional actions on technology policy and export control as possibilities.

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."

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