GENEVA/TOKYO -- As the World Health Organization's annual gathering of members concluded its two-day meeting on Tuesday, the U.S. and China traded barbs until the closing moments over the issue of Taiwan's attendance, symbolizing the heated battle between the world's two largest economies that overshadowed the assembly.
"We join countless others in the international community who today have called on the WHO to extend an invitation to Taiwan" to the World Health Assembly, senior American diplomat Howard Solomon said via videoconference in closing remarks.
He was quickly rebutted by Chen Xu, China's ambassador to the United Nations Office at Geneva, who called Solomon's remarks unacceptable.
"This videoconference unanimously decided not to examine the issue of Taiwan so as to guarantee the smooth running of the meeting," he said, also through live video. "However, just now, the U.S. delegate is still doing political hype."
Taiwan was not invited to the assembly as an observer after strong opposition from China, which considers the self-governing island one of its provinces. Taiwan dropped its bid to attend Monday, and the U.S. condemned the WHO for bowing to pressure from Beijing.
The exchange between the two representatives echoed an earlier exchange of words by the two countries.
On Monday evening, U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted a copy of a letter he had sent to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, in which he threatened to pull out of the WHO and permanently cut American funding if it does not commit to "major substantive improvements" within the next 30 days.
"It is clear the repeated missteps by you and your organization in responding to the pandemic have been extremely costly for the world," Trump wrote. "The only way forward for the World Health Organization is if it can actually demonstrate independence from China."
Trump reeled off a list of old and new concerns regarding the WHO's handling of the crisis. Among other things, he accused the organization of ignoring reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan in early December and failing to share critical information from Taiwan with the rest of the world.
China reacted angrily, saying the U.S. president is trying to shift the blame for his country's mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Responding to the Trump letter, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said Tuesday that "the letter from the U.S. leader is full of hints and ambiguous rhetoric."
"It is an attempt to mislead the public, slander China's effort in containing the coronavirus, and shift the blame to others. This is in vain," Zhao told reporters at a daily press briefing in Beijing.
The assembly did manage to endorse a resolution brought by the European Union on the need for an independent investigation into the global response to the pandemic.
None of the WHO's 194 member states raised objections to the resolution, which was sponsored by more than 100 countries, including Australia, China and Japan. WHO chief Tedros promised a comprehensive review, saying Monday that it would come "at the earliest appropriate moment."
But future international cooperation at the WHO remained much in doubt amid the war of words.
"There was a failure by this organization to obtain the information that the world needed. And that failure cost many lives," said U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar in his address to the World Health Assembly on Monday.
The WHO needs to "clean up" its act, Trump warned again on Tuesday.
The U.S. is the largest contributor to the WHO, providing around 16% of its funding. Without American support, assistance to developing nations may face cuts. The U.S. also contributes personnel, including staff from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention dispatched to WHO headquarters in Geneva.
Given the important roles both the U.S. and China play in vaccine and treatment development, the WHO is struggling to tread a fine line in trying not to provoke either side.
Trump's letter came as Washington and Beijing ratchet up tensions on a range of issues.
The U.S. Department of Commerce last week stepped up its crackdown on Huawei Technologies' access to American know-how. In response, China threatened to activate the "unreliable entity list," restrict or investigate U.S. companies such as Qualcomm, Cisco and Apple, and suspend purchases of Boeing airplanes.
In an online appearance at the World Health Assembly on Monday, Chinese President Xi Jinping painted his country as a global leader and called for international cooperation against the new coronavirus. He pledged $2 billion toward this end, and promised to make any Chinese vaccine "a global public good" when available.
Xi also deflected criticism of China's initial response, saying all countries are vulnerable. "The virus does not respect borders," he said in a roughly 10-minute speech. "Nor is race or nationality relevant in the face of the disease."
"We have provided information to WHO and relevant countries in a most timely fashion," Xi said. "We have released the genome sequence at the earliest possible time. We have shared control and treatment experience with the world without reservation. We have done everything in our power to support and assist countries in need."
Additional reporting by Nikki Sun.