US secretary of state says global pressure may force China to be transparent on Covid-19

·4-min read

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday dodged questions about what measures Washington would take if Beijing does not cooperate on efforts to determine whether the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 escaped from a Chinese laboratory, suggesting instead that international pressure would help convince the Chinese government.

“I don’t want to get into … hypotheticals going forward in the future about what we would or would not do, but I think I can say with confidence that there is going to be an increasing international demand that countries, including China, meet the responsibilities when it comes to providing information access and transparency on global health, including [Covid-19],” Blinken said in a hearing before the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Several nations – including the United States, Britain and Japan – said the findings of a World Health Organization (WHO)-led inquiry into how the new pathogen first began spreading in the Chinese city of Wuhan – where it was detected in late 2019 – were flawed by a lack of transparency and independence from Beijing. WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also cited gaps in data access for the international scientists on the ground, though China has defended its transparency.

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Following pressure from lawmakers in both parties and a report by The Wall Street Journal that three researchers at the Wuhan Institute of Virology were hospitalised just before the Covid-19 outbreak was confirmed in China, President Joe Biden ordered the US intelligence community to look further into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Mike Pompeo, Blinken’s immediate predecessor under former president Donald Trump, piled on, criticising Biden for noting in his announcement of the investigation that the true source of the new virus may never be known.

“In the United States, we punish destruction of evidence and consider cover-ups as indicating culpability,” Pompeo said in an opinion piece published by The Washington Post on Monday. “We hold inherently dangerous activities to strict liability. China is already clearly guilty on these counts.”

“The leading democracies may choose to swallow their losses to avoid confrontation,” Pompeo said in the piece, co-written with I Lewis Libby, an assistant to former president George W Bush. “Biden may resolve to be tougher next time. But history shows that next time is often too late.”

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Libby, also known as “Scooter” Libby, resigned from his posts in the Bush administration; he was found guilty on charges in the case of a CIA officer identity leak.

Blinken’s response to lawmakers was consistent with those he gave in an Axios interview that aired on HBO on Sunday, when he was asked about the implications of a refusal by the Chinese government to grant Wuhan lab access to outside investigators and whether the US would announce new sanctions in such a scenario.

“It’s profoundly in China’s interest to do this as well, because … it suffered too in the outbreak of this pandemic,” Blinken said in the interview. “It presumably has an interest as well, especially if it purports to be a responsible international actor, to do everything it can to provide all the information it has to make sure we can hopefully prevent this from happening again.”

The top diplomat also declined to answer directly when asked during the House hearing whether he was considering a boycott of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

Mike Pompeo has criticised Biden for noting in his announcement of the coronavirus origin investigation that the true source of the new virus may never be known. Photo: AFP via Getty Images/TNS
Mike Pompeo has criticised Biden for noting in his announcement of the coronavirus origin investigation that the true source of the new virus may never be known. Photo: AFP via Getty Images/TNS

While some lawmakers including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory Meeks are pushing for a diplomatic boycott, which would not ban US athletes from competing in the games, Representative Chris Smith, a Republican from New Jersey, pushed Blinken to commit to a full boycott.

A diplomatic boycott “would not be enough when you put that side by side with a genocide to be going on simultaneously with the Olympics”, he said reiterating the accusation that the Biden administration has repeated. “Will the administration try to move the venue to another city or will we lead a boycott of nations of conscience?” Smith asked.

“We’re consulting closely with other countries, with allies, with partners to make sure that we understand what the common concerns are and, ideally, to establish a shared approach,” Blinken replied. “So more on that in the weeks to come.”

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