(Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump used the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday to attack China's handling of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, saying it must be held accountable for having “unleashed this plague onto the world.”
By contrast, China's President Xi Jinping struck a conciliatory tone in his pre-recorded virtual address to the General Assembly, calling for enhanced cooperation over the pandemic and stressing that China had no intention of fighting “either a Cold War or a hot war with any country.”
The leaders of the world's two largest economies laid out their competing visions as relations have plunged to their worst level in decades against the backdrop of the pandemic, with coronavirus tensions aggravating trade and technology disputes.
Trump, facing a November re-election battle with the United States dealing with the world's highest official number of deaths and infections from the coronavirus, focused his speech on attacking China.
He accused Beijing of allowing people to leave China in the early stages of the outbreak to infect the world while shutting down domestic travel.
“We must hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world, China,” he said in remarks taped on Monday at the White House and delivered remotely to the General Assembly due to the pandemic.
“The Chinese government, and the World Health Organization – which is virtually controlled by China – falsely declared that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission,” he said.
“Later, they falsely said people without symptoms would not spread the disease … The United Nations must hold China accountable for their actions.”
The president promised to distribute a vaccine and said: “We will defeat the virus, and we will end the pandemic.”
In introducing Xi's remarks, China's U.N. ambassador Zhang Jun said China “resolutely rejects the baseless accusations against China.”
“The world is at a crossroads. At this moment, the world needs more solidarity and cooperation, but not confrontation,” he said.
'Get through this together'
In his address, in what appeared to be an implicit rebuke to Trump, Xi called for a global response to the coronavirus and giving a leading role to the World Health Organization, which the U.S. president has announced plans to leave.
“Facing the virus, we should enhance solidarity and get through this together,” he said. “We should follow the guidance of science, give full play to the leading role of the World Health Organization and launch a joint international response to beat this pandemic. Any attempt of politicizing the issue, or stigmatization, must be rejected.”
The WHO rejected Trump's remarks.
“No one gov't controls us,” it communications director, Gabby Stern, said in a tweet, adding: “On Jan. 14 our #COVID19 technical lead told media of the potential for human-to-human transmission. Since February, our experts have publicly discussed transmission by people without symptoms or prior to symptoms.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin told the General Assembly the WHO should be strengthened to coordinate the global response to the pandemic and proposed a high-level conference on vaccine cooperation.
China has portrayed itself as the chief cheerleader for multilateralism as Trump's disregard for international cooperation has led to Washington quitting global deals on climate and Iran and leaving the U.N. Human Rights Council as well as the WHO.
Xi took an apparent swipe at Trump's “America First” policy in statement to a meeting celebrating the 75th anniversary of the United Nations on Monday.
“No country has the right to dominate global affairs, control the destiny of others, or keep advantages in development all to itself. Even less should one be allowed to do whatever it likes and be the hegemon, bully or boss of the world. Unilateralism is a dead end,” he said.
The death toll from the spread of the coronavirus in the United States surpassed 200,000 on Monday, by far the highest official number of any country.
Trump also attacked China's record on the environment, but leveled no direct criticism at Beijing over human rights.
The president, a frequent critic of the United Nations, said that if it was to be effective, it must focus on “the real problems of the world” like “terrorism, the oppression of women, forced labor, drug trafficking, human and sex trafficking, religious persecution, and the ethnic cleansing of religious minorities.”
Earlier, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that the world was “moving in a very dangerous direction” with U.S.-China tensions.
“We must do everything to avoid a new Cold War,” he told the assembly. “Our world cannot afford a future where the two largest economies split the globe in a Great Fracture — each with its own trade and financial rules and internet and artificial intelligence capacities.
“A technological and economic divide risks inevitably turning into a geo-strategic and military divide. We must avoid this at all costs.”