The Trump administration is pressing the European Union to support an international inquiry into China’s handling of the new coronavirus, including the origins of the pandemic, as Brussels seeks to avoid taking sides in an increasingly bitter battle between Beijing and Washington over responsibility for the crisis.
The U.S. is seeking an international probe into whether Beijing mishandled the contagion in its early stages, resulting in a global pandemic that has killed 250,000 and crippled the global economy.
Calls by Australian government officials starting in mid-April for an independent inquiry quickly devolved into a testy back-and-forth. Chinese ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye in a local interview accused Canberra of teaming up with Washington to attack China.
Wary of alienating either China or the U.S., the EU initially proposed an international inquiry to look into “lessons learnt from the international health response to Covid-19” to help improve future pandemic responses. The EU proposal was an early draft of a resolution it wants adopted at the World Health Organization’s decision-making body later this month.
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That proposal, however, fell short of demands by the U.S. to examine the origins of the contagion—a focus Beijing has denounced as Washington’s attempt to deflect responsibility for its own handling of the outbreak. The EU proposal seeks to avoid pinning blame for the pandemic on any single country and would come only when the immediate crisis has passed.
The pressure from Washington for a robust international inquiry into China’s management of the pandemic leaves the EU in what has become an increasingly familiar bind for the bloc, seeking a middle way between two rival global powers.
“In my opinion, we need to look independently at what happened, standing aside from the battlefield between China and the United States, who blame each other for the events in a bid that has only exacerbated their rivalry,” EU foreign-policy chief Josep Borrell said in a French newspaper interview last weekend.
The World Health Assembly, the WHO’s general assembly, determines its policies and is the forum for members to call for it to take action in a specific area. In recent days, with the assembly convening soon, intensive negotiations have emerged over the text of the EU proposal, with WHO members pitching in suggestions and changes.
On Tuesday, an EU spokeswoman said “a thorough understanding of the epidemiology of the coronavirus pandemic is essential” for authorities to make “informed decisions.” People familiar with the negotiations say some of these concerns are reflected in the current text. China hasn’t yet responded to the new language.
A spokesman for China’s mission to the EU said Beijing was aware of the European initiative but had no further comment.
A State Department spokesperson said Tuesday that “we count on our Allies and partners joining the United States to ask the hard questions that are needed of China, as well as the WHO, in order to prevent such an unchecked outbreak in the future.”
The European resolution follows rising criticism by the U.S. and other governments of the slow reaction of China’s ruling Communist Party in the early days of the outbreak, when the virus might have been contained. Senior White House officials have suggested, without providing evidence, that the virus may have originated in a Chinese lab.
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Beijing has responded by rejecting calls for an investigation and casting its own doubts on the virus’s origin, suggesting without evidence that the U.S. military introduced it to China.
The WHO’s representative in China, Dr. Gauden Galea, told Sky News that China was conducting its own investigations into the origin of the outbreak but hadn’t yet invited the WHO to participate.
EU officials have previously said they would support the idea of an independent probe but said it shouldn’t detract from coordinating global efforts to stem the virus, which has infected more than 3.6 million people world-wide.
However, speaking to local media on Monday, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said “the whole world wants the exact origin of the virus to be clarified.”
Beijing’s diplomatic and propaganda efforts have grown more aggressive in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, with ambassadors and state-run media exerting pressure on governments, newspapers and individuals that have criticized its handling of the crisis.
Chinese diplomats last month pressed the EU to not publish in a report the bloc’s accusations that China distributed false information during the crisis. Some Europeans accused the EU of softening the report, which Brussels denied. The published report accused Chinese officials and state-backed commentators of pushing “conspiracy narratives and disinformation both at public audiences in the EU and the wider neighborhood.”
—Drew Hinshaw in Warsaw and Courtney McBride in Washington contributed to this article.