“The U.S. is turning from overconfidence to fear and overreaction,” said Hua Chunying, citing the Trump administration’s decision to evacuate some U.S. Embassy personnel and impose a ban on Chinese travelers.
She asserted that the administration has not offered “any substantial assistance” to combat the virus, which has infected more than 20,000 people in China and more than 150 in 23 other nations, including 11 in the United States.
The criticism highlighted a significant challenge for authorities on both sides as they scramble to identify, quarantine and treat victims in a bid to limit the fallout of a potential pandemic that could have economic ramifications. Though Beijing and Washington have deployed emergency resources to combat the public health threats, there remain significant gaps in communication, information sharing and trust between the two major powers at a time of increasing global competition on trade and security matters.
“If you look at the whole competition with China framework, pandemics would be an instance where you would hope we can cooperate. No one has an interest in the virus spreading,” said Richard Fontaine, chief executive of the Center for a New American Security, who has advised Republican lawmakers on foreign policy.
Fontaine cited Hong Kong’s decision to restrict some travel between the special administrative region, which has reported 15 cases of the infection, and the rest of China as evidence that the Trump administration’s response has not been overheated.
“The fact that they are criticizing the U.S. for undertaking a policy that even Hong Kong has put in place suggests that the merits of the case are not at issue — but that the ‘American boogeyman’ is something they can use to deflect blame,” he said.
The Trump administration offered a tempered response Monday. President Trump made no public remarks, while the State Department declined to comment. A senior administration official, in a statement, defended the government’s actions as an aggressive effort to protect the American public.
This official pointed to Beijing’s belated decision to reverse course and allow U.S. experts to join a World Health Organization mission to China to learn more about the virus as a sign that cooperation remains viable.
“The United States appreciates China’s efforts and continued coordination with public health officials across globe,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to address the sensitive geopolitical situation.
Though Beijing has moved to enact strict controls on travel in wide swaths of the country, the government has been faulted for reacting slowly and defensively over fear of the political fallout — an approach that allowed the illness to spread quickly before an emergency response was put in place.
Behind the scenes, Trump aides said, the president and his advisers have gotten regular updates and case data from Beijing and fear that such cooperation would slow if they are publicly critical of China’s efforts.
Trump has sought to project a good working relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping since the two nations signed a “phase one” trade deal last month after an extended and acrimonious period of escalating tariffs.
Two weeks ago, the president thanked Xi in a tweet for China’s efforts, though White House aides said Trump grew more alarmed Friday when he was briefed on how quickly the disease was spreading and the news that a Chicago woman, who contracted the illness in China, infected her spouse in the first instance of a person-to-person transmission in the United States.
Tom Bossert, a former homeland security adviser, said Trump had been “rightfully prudent” in enacting the more aggressive measures, including the travel restrictions, given China’s history of failing to be transparent on viral pandemics, including the SARS outbreak nearly two decades ago.
“If he was looking to punish the Chinese economy further, he could have,” Bossert said. “I understand why they’re frustrated, but it looks to me he took a prudent step.”
In the wake of the trade pact last month, Trump said he hoped to visit Xi in Beijing to start talks on the second phase of the deal. Aides said he still hopes to meet with the Chinese leader, though that appears unlikely anytime soon given Beijing’s all-consuming emergency efforts to deal with the coronavirus.
In 2017, the Trump administration labeled China, along with Russia, as the United States’ top strategic rivals in a new national security approach that aimed to reorient policy to be more confrontational and competitive.
Gordon Chang, a China analyst who appears frequently on Fox Business Network, cautioned that the international pressure on China could prompt Beijing to “lash out” after the illness is contained and said it was “important for us to maintain the deterrence right now and make it clear to China that such language is unacceptable and that the United States will defend its interests.”
But Michael Pillsbury, a China expert at the conservative Hudson Institute who informally advises the White House on economic issues, said Trump had chosen not to “rise to the bait.”
“The official messaging is that we’re trying to help China, that Trump and Xi have spoken and it’s about cooperation,” Pillsbury said.
For Trump, the domestic political imperative of demonstrating a robust response to the virus has grown more pronounced amid the mounting cases outside China’s borders, even though the number is relatively small so far.
In her briefing, Hua, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, noted that the coronavirus outbreak was far less deadly than influenza in the United States, quoting estimates from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that 19 million people were infected and at least 10,000 died from the flu in the United States from the beginning of October to late January.
She complained that the United States was the first to evacuate diplomatic personnel from the city of Wuhan, where the novel coronavirus originated, and noted that the World Health Organization, a United Nations agency, “continues to have confidence in China’s capacity to control the outbreak.”
“There is no reason for measures that unnecessarily interfere with international travel and trade,” said Hua, who conducted the briefing via the WeChat messaging app rather than the usual in-person news conference to avoid potential transmission of the virus.
Hua reacted angrily last week when U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross stated that the coronavirus could help bring jobs to the United States as companies moved operations away from China.
“There’s nothing we can do if they want to be irrational and tilt at windmills and imagine conspiracies to punish China when they’re down,” said Tim Morrison, who served on Trump’s National Security Council before resigning in October.
Given the sensitivities, he added, the Trump administration appears to be taking steps to “make sure there is absolutely no politicization of this process” that could lend credence to Beijing’s criticism.
Fifield reported from Beijing. Josh Dawsey and Emily Rauhala in Washington contributed to this report.