US and China ratchet up tensions over WHO

TOKYO — China reacted angrily to a threat by Donald Trump to leave the World Health Organization, saying the U.S. president is trying to shift the blame for his country’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.

Responding to a letter Trump sent to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Tuesday that “the letter from the U.S. leader is full of hints and ambiguous rhetoric.”

“It is an attempt to mislead the public, slander China’s effort in containing the coronavirus, and shift the blame to others. This is in vain,” Zhao told reporters at a daily press briefing in Beijing.

In his message to Tedros the previous day, Trump threatened to pull out of the WHO and permanently cut American funding if it does not commit to “major substantive improvements” within the next 30 days.

“It is clear the repeated missteps by you and your organization in responding to the pandemic have been extremely costly for the world,” Trump wrote in the letter, which he posted on Twitter. “The only way forward for the World Health Organization is if it can actually demonstrate independence from China.”

Trump reeled off a list of concerns he raised a month ago about the WHO’s handling of the crisis. Among other things, he accused the organization of ignoring reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan in early December, and failing to share critical information from Taiwan with the rest of the world.

On Monday, the U.S. condemned the WHO for bowing to Chinese pressure to not invite Taiwan as an observer to a key meeting of the institution’s decision-making body this week. Taiwan dropped its bid to attend the World Health Assembly earlier in the day.

Trump’s letter came as Washington and Beijing ratchet up tensions on a range of issues.

The U.S. Department of Commerce last week stepped up its crackdown on Huawei Technologies’ access to American know-how. In response, China threatened to activate the “unreliable entity list,” restrict or investigate U.S. companies such as Qualcomm, Cisco and Apple, and suspend purchases of Boeing airplanes.

In an online appearance at the World Health Assembly on Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping painted his country as a global leader and called for international cooperation against the new coronavirus. He pledged $2 billion toward this end, and promised to make any Chinese vaccine “a global public good” when available.

Xi also deflected criticism of China’s initial response, saying all countries are vulnerable. “The virus does not respect borders,” he said in a roughly 10-minute speech. “Nor is race or nationality relevant in the face of the disease.”

“We have provided information to WHO and relevant countries in a most timely fashion,” Xi said. “We have released the genome sequence at the earliest possible time. We have shared control and treatment experience with the world without reservation. We have done everything in our power to support and assist countries in need.”

Additional reporting by Nikki Sun.

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