Trump Stumbles in Effort to Confront China at WHO

U.S. fails to gain support for an immediate investigation into coronavirus origins and for bringing Taiwan on as observer. 

By , a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy.
The World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva on April 24.
The World Health Organization headquarters in Geneva on April 24. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images

The Trump administration set itself two goals for this week at the World Health Organization: secure international support for an “immediate investigation” into the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China, and restore Taiwan’s observer status at the United Nations health agency. It got neither.

The Trump administration set itself two goals for this week at the World Health Organization: secure international support for an “immediate investigation” into the origins of the coronavirus in Wuhan, China, and restore Taiwan’s observer status at the United Nations health agency. It got neither.

The setbacks underscore the challenges Washington is facing in rallying international support for a tougher line against Beijing in the months after one of the biggest pandemics in a century began its spread from Wuhan to more than 200 countries. It also set the stage for a volcanic reaction from President Donald Trump, who warned late Monday that he may make good on a threat to withdraw from WHO and cut hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. assistance to the U.N. health agency.

“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 in a letter to WHO’s Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “If the World Health Organization does not commit to major substantive improvements within the next 30 days, I will make my temporary freeze of United States funding to the World Health Organization permanent and reconsider our membership.”

The president’s threat to withdraw from the health agency provided a fresh opportunity for China to step into the vacuum left by a U.S. government that has turned away from the multilateral institutions it constructed to manage world affairs at the end of World War II. It also provoked criticism from the camp of former vice president and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden.

[Mapping the Coronavirus Outbreak: Get daily updates on the pandemic.]

“It is a big mistake to pull back in the way that we’ve done,” Biden’s foreign-policy chief, Tony Blinken, said Tuesday in a virtual discussion moderated by CBS News’ Margaret Brennan. “This simply creates a vacuum that someone else is going to fill, and China has now raised its hands and said we’re going to fill it.

Speaking Tuesday at a virtual summit of the World Health Assembly, the health agency’s decision-making body, China’s President Xi Jinping defended his government’s response to the virus, insisting “we have acted with openness, transparency, and responsibility” and “we have done everything in our power to support and assist countries in need.” Xi pledged to spend more than $2 billion over the next two years to strengthen the international fight against the pandemic and help developing countries improve their health systems. He also promised that vaccines developed in China, “when available, will be made a global public good.”

“China supports the idea of a comprehensive review of the global response to COVID-19 after it is brought under control to sum up experience and address deficiencies,” Xi added. “This work should be based on science and professionalism, led by WHO and conducted in an objective and impartial manner.”

On Tuesday, the health agency’s member states, including China and the United States, adopted a European-drafted resolution acknowledging the “key leadership role of WHO” in responding to the pandemic and calling for the initiation, “at the earliest appropriate moment,” of an “impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation” of the WHO-coordinated international response to the pandemic. The timing of the evaluation, which would be subject to further negotiations by governments, was unclear.

Late last month, the United States proposed the WHO “immediately initiate an independent expert evaluation, in consultation with Member States, to review lessons learned from the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19,” according to the confidential proposal, which was reviewed by Foreign Policy. The evaluation would address the “adequacy of WHO and Member State actions … since the outbreak began; a full assessment of the timelines, accuracy, and information sharing aimed at containing the outbreak of the source.”

Both China and WHO leadership have argued that any review of the agency’s handling of the crisis should be put off until after the pandemic has been contained.

“It may be useful, at an appropriate time, to independently assess the Organization’s performance during this response and identify lessons for the future,” according to the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme’s Independent Oversight and Advisory Committee, or IOAC, which concluded a preliminary assessment of WHO’s COVID-19 response. “The scope of such assessment … should cover both Member States’ and WHO Secretariat’s actions in response to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the preliminary report said. “The IOAC would caution that conducting such a review during the heat of the response, even in a limited manner, could disrupt WHO’s ability to respond effectively.”

“The pandemic has heightened geopolitical tension and the public health crisis has become a major issue in domestic politics in many settings,” according to the report, which noted that Tedros and staff have received “credible threats” following criticism leveled against the health agency in the media.

Tuesday’s resolution fell short of U.S. aims to see an immediate international inquiry into China’s handling of the outbreak. But U.S. officials said they were pleased with the outcome and that they would continue to press for a swift inquiry.

“We wholeheartedly endorse the call in the resolution for all Member States to provide the WHO with timely, accurate, and sufficiently-detailed public health information related to the COVID-19 pandemic,” the United States said in a statement. “We further appreciate the mandate given by the resolution to the WHO to investigate the origins of the virus, and we are confident that through this knowledge, researchers and medical practitioners around the world will be empowered in the pursuit of vaccines and other countermeasures.”

But the United States broke with the consensus on two key provisions in the resolution that called for maintaining international support for a range of health care needs, including for sexual and reproductive health, and ensuring universal access to critical medicines and supplies needed to confront the pandemic in poor countries.

“We do not accept reference to ‘sexual and reproductive health,’ or other language that suggests or explicitly states that access to abortion is included in the provision of population and individual level health services,” the U.S. statement reads. “The United States believes in legal protections for the unborn.”

The United States also objected to language calling for “universal” and “fair” access to affordable health technologies needed to battle COVID-19, and for promoting affordable access to tests, therapeutic medicines, and vaccines. The U.S. move appeared to be aimed at protecting the patent rights of American pharmaceutical companies.

The U.S. retreat on Taiwan’s observer status, its other negotiating priority, came weeks after Washington, backed by Tokyo, persuaded half a dozen countries—Australia, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany, and New Zealand—to issue a joint letter to Tedros asking him to invite Taiwan to attend the May 18-19 virtual meeting of the World Health Assembly.

But Tedros—who faced pressure from China not to invite Taiwan—insisted in talks with the United States that he needed a formal mandate from the health agency’s member states to invite Taiwan. The United States—which has been pressing Tedros for months to demonstrate greater independence from China—countered that he did have the authority to issue an invitation. The Chinese, the United States argued, might well oppose the action, forcing the matter to a vote by WHO’s member states. It remained unlikely that the United States would be able to muster the votes needed to override Chinese objections.

The matter will now be taken up at the next meeting of the World Health Assembly in six months.

“The U.S. and Japan knew they would not get the numbers in a vote,” said one senior diplomat. “They live to fight another day in November.”

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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