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Editorial: Britain should back global co-operation, not hysterical attacks on China

TWO models of international relations were on display at this week’s World Health Assembly (WHA).

World Health Organisation (WHO) director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus sums them up: “Science has been hailed and scorned, nations have come together as never before and geopolitical divisions have been thrown into sharp relief.”

The most significant of those geopolitical divisions is marked by the friction between the world’s two largest economies. US President Donald Trump ran for election on a China-bashing platform and has since slapped tariffs and trade restrictions on Beijing. 

The US’s harshening of restrictions on suppliers of Chinese comms giant Huawei at the weekend are supposedly inspired by the security risk the company poses: in reality they are part of Washington’s determination to scupper Xi Jinping’s “Made in China 2020” policy, which directs public and regulates private investment towards the creation of Chinese world leaders in high technology fields. As Beijing puts it: “The US uses state power to continuously oppress and contain specific enterprises of other countries.”

The Huawei dispute is not directly linked to Covid-19. But US resentment of China is key to understanding the dynamics of today’s opening session of the WHA.

China unveiled billions in funding to help fight the pandemic worldwide and committed to making any vaccine it develops a “public good” available to all. 

The US launched a bizarre and unprovoked attack on the organisation — using as a pretext the question of Taiwanese representation — and sniffed that Beijing’s stated desire for “transparency and international co-operation” was empty.

The intemperance of US attacks on China is partly aimed at distracting attention from the Trump administration’s truly awful handling of the pandemic. The world’s richest country has the highest number of infections and deaths as a result of Covid-19; its death toll is climbing to 90,000 when China, with more than four times the population, managed to keep deaths under 5,000.

Since the virus hit China first, and China adopted well publicised measures that effectively contained it, the failure of the US government — like that of Britain — to provide similar protection to its people cannot be blamed on others. As Tedros stated today, the WHO declared a global health emergency on January 30. 

China shared the genome of the new virus earlier still, on January 12, and had been issuing warnings to the US among other countries that a new highly contagious and dangerous virus had emerged in Wuhan as early as January 3. 

US claims that China did not warn it soon enough would have more weight if the White House had reacted swiftly when it did receive warnings but, again like the Boris Johnson government here, it did nothing for well over a month when the gravity of the threat was already known. Tens of thousands of people have paid with their lives for this criminal negligence.

Yet the abuse the US heaps on China is not only a face-saving exercise.

Like the threats towards Huawei, it is an effort to shore up the US’s pretensions to global leadership and its status as the world’s dominant power. 

Since the start of the crisis, Washington has thrown its weight around, blocking medical aid to Cuba, calling for the arrest on baseless charges of the Venezuelan president, harshening sanctions on Iran.

China, by contrast, has sent emergency medical teams and aid around the world.

Two different models of international relations. Co-operation and mutual assistance versus sanctions, posturing and threats. 

Britain may have long been a junior partner to the US on the international stage, but the case for distancing ourselves from Washington’s reckless aggression is growing stronger. Labour should call on the government to work with the World Health Organisation for a joint international effort to overcome Covid-19 and for a public rejection of the bullying and braggadocio of the White House.

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