The Irish Times view on US-China tensions: a reckoning for the superpowers

Beijing and Washington will have questions to answer on their handling of Covid-19

There is no doubt that China has questions to answer to the international community about its early coronavirus response, not least its attempts to silence whistleblowers. The Wuhan Municipal Health Commission reported a cluster of pneumonia cases on December 31st, 2019. China informed the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention on January 3rd, and on January 7th identified the virus that causes Covid-19. Chinese authorities updated the WHO and warned of human-to-human transmission of the disease some weeks later.

China's knee-jerk refusal to accede to Australian calls for an independent international inquiry into the pandemic's origins, however, will only help feed a war of words with the Trump administration that is turning a Washington political hunt for scapegoats into an alarming international superpower confrontation now also embroiled in trade rows and gun-boat diplomacy.

At the weekend US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was pouring fuel on the fire with a tweet declaring that "China has a history of infecting the world and they have a history of running substandard laboratories". He claimed, contrary to the stated views of US and Western intelligence agencies and most epidemiologists, that there is "enormous evidence" that the virus originated in a Wuhan laboratory. And he ominously warned that "President Trump is very clear, we're gonna hold those responsible accountable".

No evidence was produced, and most scientists now believe in initial transmission from bats. China strongly denies the claims that the virus is manmade or escaped from a lab, and has even added its own conspiracy theory, a suggestion from a Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, also on Twitter, that the virus originated in the US and was brought to China by the US military.


Trump has reportedly lobbied dozens of foreign leaders to win backing for the US vilification of China and its preparations for retaliatory action.

But talking about “accountability”, there are questions that the US president should also be asked by any inquiry into the pandemic.

In the last few days alone: he has encouraged demonstrators to protest at Democratic governors' reluctance to end lockdown measures; as the virus continues to spread, he has spoken of the likelihood of more deaths as a worthwhile price to be paid for getting the economy moving again; he has fired whistleblower Rick Bright as head of a biomedical research authority for claiming he was being required to favour contracts to Trump cronies; and he has blocked testimony from top adviser Dr Anthony Fauci to the House of Representatives. China has serious questions to answer, and they must be asked. But Trump, too, will face a reckoning for his own dangerous errors at his country's time of greatest need.