The growing rift between the United States and China and Russia was clearly evident on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly Thursday, threatening to overshadow international cooperation on the coronavirus response.
This year’s assembly has been held online because of the pandemic, and its focus has been on confronting COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, through effective multilateral action.
At a side event in the Security Council meant to complement that theme, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed concern that the pandemic is unfolding against a backdrop of “high geopolitical tensions.”
“The pandemic is a clear test of international cooperation, a test we have essentially failed,” Guterres told the videoconference of the U.N.’s most powerful body. Those tensions were on display in the council, as the foreign ministers of China and Russia referenced their divisions with the United States.
“In such a challenging moment, major countries are even more duty-bound to put the future of humankind first, discard Cold War mentality and ideological bias, and come together in the spirit of partnership to tide over the difficulties,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
His Russian counterpart said differences between some nations have been reignited and heightened by the impact of the virus.
“A number of countries are increasingly tempted to look abroad to find those who are responsible for their problems at home,” Sergey Lavrov said. “There are obvious attempts by individual states to use the current situation to promote self-serving and fleeting interests and to settle scores with unwanted governments or geopolitical rivals.”
Some U.S. allies were also seemingly critical of the United States and the Trump administration.
Potential for cooperation
“We need to refocus on the positive potential of cooperation instead of on putting our own countries first,” said German State Minister Niels Annen. “If one of us fails, all of us fail.”
U.S. Ambassador Kelly Craft was blunt in return, telling the entire council, “Shame on each of you” for focusing on “political grudges.” She zeroed in on China and reiterated President Donald Trump’s strong stance that Beijing should be held accountable as the source of the pandemic.
“The actions of the Chinese Communist Party prove that not all member states are equally committed to public health, transparency and their international obligations,” she said. “This fact should deeply trouble all of the responsible nations of the world who are working in good faith to defeat COVID-19 and keep future pandemics from emerging.”
China’s U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun fired back, telling Craft, “Enough is enough.” Acknowledging that his country was the first “to be hit” by the virus, he said it had made a great contribution to the global response.
He noted the U.S. has nearly 7 million of the world’s almost 32 million confirmed virus cases, and 200,000 deaths.
“The U.S. should understand that its failure in handling COVID-19 is totally its own fault,” Zhang said.
Rising tensions between Washington and Beijing have been evident this week, in both the speeches of their leaders to the General Assembly and on the sidelines.
China targeted on virus
On Tuesday, Trump told the assembly that Beijing should be “held accountable” for having a domestic lockdown in the earliest days of the virus but allowing air travel from China to continue “and infect the world.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also took aim at China this week, saying the administration is in the process of determining how to label Beijing's repression of Uighur Muslims — as “crimes against humanity” or “genocide.” Such terms carry enormous weight in international law and relations.
In remarks directed at Washington, China’s President Xi Jinping denounced efforts to politicize or stigmatize the virus.