Of all the problems that have ravaged ties between China and the West since the pandemic, no one has been more sensitive in Beijing than questions about the origins of Covid-19.
China last year responded to US ally Australia’s initial push for an independent inquiry into where the virus came from, with tariffs on barley and wine exports. Since then, Beijing has repeatedly blasted calls for more transparency as politically motivated, trying to divert proposals as it came from a laboratory in Wuhan with theories of alternative origins ranging from transmission via imports of frozen foods to release from US biofacilities.
That made U.S. President Joe Biden’s revival of laboratory theory last week – by giving intelligence services 90 days to come closer to a final conclusion about the origin of coronavirus – all the more meaningful. The order came as political pressure rose following a series of reports suggesting that the theory, which was prominently supported by Trump administration officials, had been overturned prematurely. Even Facebook Inc. said it would stop removing posts claiming that Covid-19 was man-made or manufactured.
The origins investigation comes at a sensitive time in US-China relations, with both governments showing signs of wanting to move beyond the vitriol that marked the final year of Donald Trump’s presidency. While Biden has maintained Trump’s tariffs and sanctions on Beijing, his administration has also begun to open a dialogue: Finance Minister Janet Yellen made her first call with Deputy Prime Minister Liu He on Tuesday night in Washington, following his conversation last week with US Trade Representative Katherine Tai.
But the results of the lab’s leak probe could tie Xi Jinping’s hands, especially if they come just before he has a chance to meet Biden at the Group 20 summit in October. While Xi realizes that China’s aggressive response has damaged its status abroad – this week he urged officials to create a “credible, lovable and respectable” image for the country – the Chinese Communist Party has no choice but to strongly oppose any proposal, the abused. or covered by a virus that effectively shut the world down.
“The issue of the virus’ origin is deeply linked to the CCP’s legitimacy, so I do not expect China to become more transparent – it will relentlessly fight this,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program at the German Marshall Fund of the US, a Washington -based political research group.
“Having said that, it is unlikely that China will use the forms of economic coercion against the United States that it uses against Australia, in part because it fears US retaliation in the form of further restrictions on high technology,” she added. “It also fears the downward spiral of US-China relations to dangerous levels.”
Since the early days of the pandemic, some U.S. intelligence officials have suggested that SARS-CoV-2 – the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 – may have been leaked either accidentally or deliberately from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Researchers at a high-tech laboratory there have studied other coronaviruses, including some that were isolated from bats.
A report by the World Health Organization prepared with China earlier this year called the possibility of a laboratory leak “extremely unlikely” because no such virus was tested there before the outbreak and the safety protocols do not appear to have been broken. The report, compiled by local researchers after Beijing finally allowed a group of WHO experts to enter Wuhan, said the most likely origin scenario was that the virus spread to humans from bats through an unspecified middle 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 theory of laboratory leakage needed more investigation. Other prominent Western scientists have called for hypotheses about natural and laboratory emissions to be taken seriously until there is sufficient data to say otherwise.
While Biden’s move to publicly announce the virus probe appears to be “purely political”, Tedros’ criticism of the WHO report is harder for China to reject “and it drives them crazy,” according to Christopher Johnson, a former senior China analyst at Central Intelligence Agency. who is now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Either way, he added, it is unlikely that China will continue to allow access that would shed further light on its origins.
“Finding a smoking gun on this would be nearly impossible, so the only way you can de-escalate is by actually talking to each other,” Johnson said. “Without it, the potential to inflame the relationship further.”
Chinese diplomats and senior officials at Wuhan Laboratory have repeatedly denied that the plant was the source of coronavirus. In response to the Biden inquiry, State Department spokesman Zhao Lijian last week pointed to the WHO findings while questioning why U.S. intelligence services were involved.
“How can anyone trust the results of an ‘investigation’ carried out by such an intelligence agency without credibility to speak of?” he said on May 27th.
Zhao also pointed to the “suspiciously shrouded” Fort Detrick in Maryland, a base home to the U.S. Bio Defense Agency. This was a repetition of a theory that Zhao has long pushed for that the virus may have originated in the United States. Chinese officials have highlighted research showing evidence of coronavirus infections outside China in late 2019, pointing to the import of frozen foods as a possible vector – all part of an effort to cast doubt on the virus originates from or around Wuhan, the central Chinese city that saw the first known Covid-19 cases.
The bid’s intelligence directive now ensures that the discussion will continue for at least the next several months, and ties between the US and China could get even worse if the investigation ends up fingering Chinese officials, according to Hugo Brennan, analyst at risk consulting firm Verisk Maplecroft.
“If the U.S. intelligence community concludes that the ‘Wuhan lab leak’ theory is the most likely cause of the pandemic, it will see U.S.-China relations plunge to new lows,” he said. “Especially if the consensus is that Beijing was deliberately trying to cover up the leak.”