Beijing is using the outbreak to boost its reputation for global cooperation while Washington plays the blame-Beijing game
In a bid to restore its reputation globally, China claims to have fundamentally contained the spread of coronavirus in its hardest-hit areas and has pledged $20 million to help the World Health Organization to help improve public health systems in poor countries, China's United Nations ambassador wrote in a letter to UN member states.
The message – which was delivered as the United States and Europe brace for a major surge in cases – underscored how Beijing is attempting to rebrand itself as the international leader in a global fight against a virus that likely originated in its own territory and which WHO on Wednesday formally declared a pandemic.
The letter, obtained by Foreign Policy, appeared calculated to rebut growing criticism from the United States and elsewhere over its initial handling of the outbreak that allowed the disease to spread so rapidly. "The spread of the epidemic has been basically contained in Hubei and Wuhan," China's UN Ambassador Zhang Jun boasted in a letter to representatives of the UN's other 192 member states.
"We are ready to strengthen solidarity with the rest of the international community to jointly fight the epidemic."
The race by medical workers to stop the deadly virus's spread is playing out against a backdrop of big-power diplomatic rivalry between the United States and China, which are both seeking to use the calamity to stake out their claims to global influence.
At the moment, the contrast between their approaches is striking. China's focus on international cooperation differs sharply from that of the White House – which has mainly used the crisis to point blame at Beijing and has directed most of its energies to domestic measures to protect against the virus. Beyond that, the White House shuttered its pandemic preparedness office two years ago and recently proposed sharp cuts in US financial contributions to WHO. Last month, the White House request to authorize $2.5 billion –including $1.25 billion in new money – to fight coronavirus included no money for the Geneva-based health agency or other international programs aimed at coordinating the international response.
In news conferences this week, the head of Trump's coronavirus task force, Vice President Mike Pence, and his team have said little about the need to cooperate with partnering countries and international institutions.
"I don't sense there is any huge, effective US strategy internationally to fight Covid-19 any more than there is an effective US strategy," said one Democratic congressional aide. "This administration doesn't value multilateral institutions – they view them merely as whipping boys and inefficient financial drains."
For Trump administration officials, China's sluggish and secretive early response to the outbreak also fits into a narrative they have been pushing for years: China cannot be trusted as a global leader – on leadership in international institutions, on Chinese tech giant Huawei building sensitive 5G telecommunications networks in Europe, and on aid and investment in developing countries.
Reflecting his "America First" doctrine, Trump himself even suggested in the early days of the outbreak that it might be good for the United States if Americans could not travel abroad. "We're going to have Americans staying home instead of going and spending the money in other countries. And maybe that's one of the reasons the job numbers are so good," he said last Friday.
"Unfortunately rather than using best practices, this outbreak in Wuhan was covered up," Robert O'Brien, Trump's national security advisor, said in public remarks on Wednesday at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "It probably cost the world community two months to respond."
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo labeled the virus the "Wuhan virus" – angering Chinese officials and others who say the label promotes xenophobia – and fumed that "it has proven incredibly frustrating to work with the Chinese Communist Party" to get accurate data on the outbreak.
The move comes as the United Nations has begun to scale back key conferences and meetings around the world. Last week, the UN suspended a critical portion of a major UN conference on women's rights in New York, turning away thousands of government officials and women's rights advocates who planned to fly to New York for the meeting.
On Wednesday, the five-member bureau of the UN Human Rights Council, which consists of representatives of the council's five regional groups, recommended this years' session be suspended indefinitely on Friday, according to a confidential copy of the minutes of the bureau's meeting. The rights council's 47 member states are expected to endorse the decision on Thursday. The decision was taken after delegations raised concern about the spread of coronavirus.