Of all the issues that have eroded ties between China and the West since the outbreak of the pandemic, none have been more sensitive in Beijing than questions about the origins of Covid-19.
China responded last year to US ally Australia’s initial push for an independent investigation into where the virus came from with tariffs on exports of its barley and wine. Since then, Beijing has repeatedly dismissed calls for greater transparency as politically motivated, trying to ward off suggestions emanating from a lab in Wuhan with theories of alternative origins ranging from frozen food import transfers to releases from US bio-facilities. .
That made the revival of US President Joe Biden’s lab theory last week — by giving intelligence agencies 90 days to get closer to a definitive conclusion about the origins of the coronavirus — all the more meaningful. The order came as political pressure mounted following a series of reports suggesting that the theory, which was prominently supported by Trump administration officials, had been prematurely ignored. Even Facebook Inc. said it would stop removing posts claiming that Covid-19 is man-made or manufactured.
The investigation into the origins comes at a sensitive time in US-China relations, with both administrations showing signs of wanting to move beyond the vitriol that marked the last year of Donald Trump’s presidency. While Biden has maintained Trump’s tariffs and sanctions against Beijing, his administration has also begun to open a dialogue: Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen made her first phone call with Vice Premier Liu He in Washington on Tuesday evening, following his conversation last week with US Trade. Representative Katherine Tai.
But the results of the lab leak investigation could tie Xi Jinping’s hands, especially if it comes just before he gets the chance to meet Biden at the Group of 20 summit in October. While Xi realizes China’s aggressive response has hurt his position abroad — this week he urged officials to create a “trustworthy, sweet and respectable” image for the country — the Chinese Communist Party has little choice but to vigorously resist offer to any suggestion she mishandled or covered up a virus that effectively shut the world down.
“The issue of the origin of the virus is closely linked to the legitimacy of the CCP, so I don’t expect China to become more transparent – it will fight this relentlessly,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall US Fund, a Washington-based policy research group.
That said, China is unlikely to use the forms of economic coercion it uses against the US against Australia, in part because it fears retaliation from the US in the form of further restrictions on high-tech. . “It also fears the downward spiral of the US-China relationship to dangerous levels.”
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Since the early days of the pandemic, some US intelligence officials have suggested that SARS-CoV-2 — the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 — may have been accidentally or intentionally leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Researchers at a high-tech lab there have studied other coronaviruses, including some isolated from bats.
A World Health Organization report co-authored with China earlier this year called the possibility of a lab leak “extremely unlikely” because no such virus had been studied there before the outbreak and no security protocols appear to have been violated. The report, prepared with local researchers after Beijing finally admitted a group of WHO experts to Wuhan, said the most likely origin scenario was that the virus spread from bats to humans through an unspecified intermediate animal.
Still, the White House criticized the report as incomplete, while WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was not “comprehensive enough” and that the lab leak theory needed more research. Other prominent Western scientists have insisted that natural and laboratory spillover hypotheses be taken seriously until there is enough data to say otherwise.
While Biden’s move to publicly announce the virus probe seemed “purely political,” Tedros’s criticism of the WHO report is harder for China to “and it drives them crazy,” said Christopher Johnson, a former senior China analyst at the United Nations. Central Intelligence Agency. who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Either way, he added, it’s unlikely China will allow more access that would shed more light on its origins.
“It would be nearly impossible to find a smoking gun on this, so the only way to de-escalate is to actually talk to each other,” Johnson said. “Without it, there’s the potential to ignite the relationship further.”
Chinese diplomats and senior officials in the Wuhan lab have repeatedly denied that the facility was the source of the coronavirus. Commenting on the Biden probe, State Department spokesman Zhao Lijian pointed to the WHO’s findings last week, while questioning why US intelligence agencies got involved.
“How can anyone trust the findings of an ‘investigation’ conducted by such an intelligence agency without any credibility?” he said on May 27.
Zhao also pointed to “suspicion shrouded” Fort Detrick in Maryland, a base home to the US Biodefense Agency. This was a reiteration of a theory Zhao has long claimed that the virus may have originated in the US. Chinese officials in late 2019 highlighted research showing evidence of coronavirus infections outside of China and pointed to frozen food imports as a possible vector – all part of efforts to cast doubt that the virus originated in or around Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the first known cases of Covid-19 were observed.
Biden’s intelligence directive is now ensuring that discussion will continue for at least the coming months, and US-China ties could worsen if the investigation catches Chinese officials, according to Hugo Brennan, an analyst at risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft.
“If the US intelligence community concludes that the ‘Wuhan lablek’ theory is the most likely cause of the pandemic, US-China relations will plummet to new lows,” he said. “Especially if the consensus is that Beijing deliberately tried to cover up the leak.”