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International relations

Trump cites 'Chinese virus' in bid to shape narrative

Washington and Beijing trade blame for outbreak as tensions soar

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the daily coronavirus response briefing at the White House on Wednesday.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- The novel coronavirus crisis has caused U.S.-China relations to nose-dive despite a break in trade tensions, as the two countries race to control the narrative around the global pandemic.

U.S. President Donald Trump on Wednesday referred to the U.S. response to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, as "our war against the Chinese virus," marking the first time he used the controversial term in an official White House briefing.

"It's not racist at all. No, not at all. It comes from China. That's why. It comes from China. I want to be accurate," Trump defended his word choice, when questioned by a reporter whether the term incited racism.

"As you know China tried to say at one point -- maybe they stopped now -- that it was caused by American soldiers. That can't happen. It's not gonna happen. Not as long as I'm president," Trump said.

The president was referring to claims made by Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official, that the American military brought the novel coronavirus to Wuhan.

The increasingly hostile rhetoric from both sides come to show a new front of tension between the world's largest two economies over the power of discourse, which has led the U.S. to label Chinese state media as government operatives and China to expel American journalists at The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Washington Post.

On Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo spoke by phone with Yang Jiechi, a member of the Chinese Politburo and director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee. The State Department said Pompeo objected strongly to Chinese efforts to "shift blame for COVID-19 to the United States."

On the other end of the call, Yang, China's top diplomat, accused U.S. politicians of slandering and stigmatizing China, warning that any move to harm the interests of China will be countered resolutely, according to Xinhua News Agency.

The U.S., which now has more than 7,300 confirmed cases of COVID-19 compared with less than a hundred at the start of March, has been scrambling to mitigate the rapidly escalating and recession-inducing outbreak, which first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December.

Having come out of an apparent peak of infections, Beijing has touted its January decision to lock down most of Hubei province, epicenter of the outbreak, which it argues has bought the world weeks of time in preparing a response.

Trump on the other hand is taking credit for his Feb. 1 ban on nonresidents traveling from China.

"I always treated the Chinese Virus very seriously, and have done a very good job from the beginning, including my very early decision to close the 'borders' from China -- against the wishes of almost all," Trump tweeted on Wednesday.

The two countries' recent hostilities show that tensions are "beyond trade conflicts" as the two giants battle for global dominance, said Feng Chucheng, partner at independent research company Plenum.

"The Chinese government has been consistently pursuing its own image on the international stage," Feng said. Now "it doesn't want to accept the fact that its narrative in the English world is being shaped by [those] from the U.S."

Trump's latest stab at China also came in sharp contrast to his remarks in the earlier stages of the outbreak, when he praised Beijing's containment efforts, going as far as thanking Chinese President Xi Jinping personally.

"China has been working very hard to contain the Coronavirus," Trump tweeted on Jan. 27. "The United States greatly appreciates their efforts and transparency. It will all work out well. In particular, on behalf of the American People, I want to thank President Xi!"

Domestically, Trump's use of the term "Chinese virus" is seen by many as a move to shift blame from how his administration initially handled the outbreak. The incumbent president has his November reelection at stake, as a likely economic recession from the coronavirus threatens his chances.

"Trump's intent is mainly short-term, distracting from the domestic politics of coronavirus and keeping the public on wartime footing," said Todd Mariano, director of the U.S. political risk consultancy Eurasia Group. "But the upshot is that China also plays well with his base, which he needs to turn out in probably higher numbers in November."

While many in Washington do not believe this is the time to cast blame, the reality is that Congress is steadily tightening China policy on its own and the fallout over COVID-19 may give them further impetus, Mariano said.

"So the risk for Beijing is that their own moves and narratives play directly into a core strength for Trump and an area of increasing hawkishness in Congress," he said.

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