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Interview

Pompeo blasts China over coronavirus 'disinformation'

Secretary of state criticizes efforts to sow 'confusion' over virus origin

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said "disinformation campaigns" marred global efforts to find a solution to the coronavirus crisis.     © Reuters

WASHINGTON -- U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday accused China of spreading disinformation about the coronavirus pandemic and urged transparent sharing of crucial data on case numbers and mortality rates.

"We've seen [disinformation campaigns] not only from Iran and Russia, but from China and others as well," Pompeo said, which aim to "avoid responsibility and try and place confusion in the world, confusion about where the virus began."

The disinformation campaigns also are an attempt to muddle "how countries are responding to it and which countries are actually providing assistance throughout the world," Pompeo said in a phone interview with Nikkei and other media from Asia, Oceania and the U.S.

He suggested that other world powers share his concern. At last week's Group of Seven summit, "one of the ministers talked to me about the fact that Europeans were being harassed in Africa because of a disinformation campaign, where another country had made a claim that this virus was generated, created, from someplace in Europe," he said.

Pompeo rejected the claim in some media reports that the G-7 was unable to form a joint statement because the U.S. insisted on calling the coronavirus the "Wuhan virus."

"Unfortunately that was some pretty bad reporting," Pompeo said, instead calling it "an enormously successful G-7 gathering."

In Monday's interview, the secretary refrained from using "Wuhan virus," referring instead to the pandemic as COVID-19, the official name designated by the World Health Organization, showing some consideration to Beijing.

But Pompeo condemned Beijing's decision to eject American reporters from China. "It will reduce the capacity for all of us to understand what's happening," in China and throughout the region, and "to have good data sets," he said.

According to a U.S. diplomatic insider, there are two factors behind Washington's increasingly vocal distrust of China regarding the coronavirus.

The first is its cool response to Washington's early offers of support. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had been in contact with China behind the scenes since early January. But Beijing did not allow a World Health Organization-led team of experts from America and elsewhere into the country until mid-February, more than a month later.

Pompeo later bluntly criticized a delay that some interpreted as intentional stonewalling.

Beijing's efforts to alter the narrative of its weak initial response have also aroused U.S. suspicion. As the outbreak spread beyond China, the government began saying last month that President Xi Jinping became aware of the problem on Jan. 7 -- two weeks earlier than in previous reports.

The central government also criticized Wuhan authorities for silencing doctor Li Wenliang's attempt to sound the alarm about the disease in late December.

China hawks in President Donald Trump's administration believe that Beijing's Communist Party-led government is prone to covering up inconvenient information. This includes Pompeo, who said after the G-7 summit that the party "threatens to undermine the free and open order that has underpinned our mutual prosperity and safety in the G-7 countries."

China's aid to countries now grappling with the pandemic, including donations of masks to Europe, and Xi's talk of a "health silk road" have been read as a bid by Beijing to leverage the pandemic to strengthen its international influence.

Pompeo seemed to try to counter this in Monday's interview. "We announced, last week, a very significant piece of assistance, $274 million, that will go across 64 priority countries," with much of it going to the Indo-Pacific region, he said.

But the secretary of state stressed that the U.S. "will continue to find every opportunity to work alongside China."

"We have important economic relationships," Pompeo said. "We, shortly before this, completed the first part of a trade deal. The second part of that we hope will follow, not too far behind that."

"The solution to this will depend on people working together all across the world," he said.

Regarding the potential relaxation of travel restrictions, Pompeo said he does not want to speculate on the timing. "We will consistently look at them and make the right choice. That is, the choice that will protect the American people, and the choice that will help the global economy and the American economy get back on its feet as quickly as possible," he said.

Pompeo was asked about a statement released Monday through North Korea's official news outlet declaring that Pyongyang "dropped the interest in dialogue" with the U.S. because of the secretary's calls at the G-7 summit for continued sanctions and pressure. The statement from the Korean Central News Agency warned that "if the U.S. bothers us, it will be hurt."

Without referring directly to the statement, Pompeo replied that Washington has been trying "diligently" to move forward on negotiations with North Korea.

"We hope that we will get an opportunity to do that," he said.

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