By David Brunnstrom and Humeyra Pamuk
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hit out at Beijing again on Wednesday over the coronavirus outbreak and accused it of taking advantage of the pandemic to bully neighbors, even as he welcomed China’s provision of essential medical supplies.
Pompeo told a news briefing that the United States “strongly believed” Beijing had failed to report the outbreak in a timely manner, in breach of World Health Organization rules, and had failed to report human-to-human transmission of the virus “for a month until it was in every province inside of China.”
Pompeo also said China had halted testing of new virus samples, “destroyed existing samples” and failed to share samples with the outside world, “making it impossible to track the disease’s evolution.”
The Trump administration has repeatedly criticized China’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, which began late last year in the Chinese city of Wuhan and has grown into a global pandemic. The outbreak has killed around 180,000 people globally, including more than 45,000 in the United States, according to a Reuters tally.
Even after Beijing notified the WHO of the outbreak, Pompeo said, “It did not share all of the information it had. Instead it covered up how dangerous the disease is.”
President Donald Trump last week suspended U.S. funding of the WHO, accusing the U.N. agency of promoting China’s “disinformation” about the outbreak. WHO officials have denied this and China has said it has been transparent and open.
Pompeo said WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom failed to use his ability “to go public” when a member state failed to follow the rules. He said the WHO had an obligation to ensure safety standards were observed in virology labs in Wuhan and its director-general had “enormous authority with respect to nations that do not comply.”
Pompeo repeated allegations that China was exploiting the world’s focus on the pandemic with “provocative behavior” to erode autonomy in Hong Kong, exert military pressure on Taiwan and coerce neighbors in the South China Sea.
“The United States strongly opposes China’s bullying, we hope other nations will hold them to account,” he said.
China’s Foreign Ministry denied the U.S allegations on Thursday. “One or two people in the U.S. are confusing right and wrong and sowing discord on these issues. These schemes will not prevail,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang.
Pompeo also expressed concern over a U.S. government-funded study that said China’s Mekong River dams held back large volumes of water during a drought in downstream countries last year despite China having higher-than-average water levels upstream. Beijing has disputed the study’s findings.
The Secretary of State spoke later on Wednesday with counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and said the United States has called on China to close its wildlife wet markets permanently, citing links between the markets and zoonotic diseases, which can jump from animals to humans.
The novel coronavirus is believed to have emerged in such a market in Wuhan late last year.
While the Trump administration has stepped up criticism of China as the pandemic worsens, the crisis has exposed U.S. reliance on China for essential medical supplies.
Asked about recent reports that supplies were being held up in China, Pompeo said: “The good news is we have seen China provide those resources; sometimes they’re from U.S. companies that are there in China, but we’ve had success. … We appreciate that.
“We are counting on China to continue to live up to its contractual obligations and international obligations to provide that assistance to us and to sell us those goods … in a way consistent with all of the international trade rules.”
White House adviser Peter Navarro, like Pompeo a persistent critic of Beijing, charged on Monday that China may be withholding data about early coronavirus infections because it wants to win the commercial race to create a vaccine.
(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and David Brunnstrom; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay, Kanishka Singh and Gabriel Crossley; Editing by Paul Simao, Leslie Adler and Tom Hogue)