Competing US views on the origins of Covid reveal deep divisions over China policy US foreign policy

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The FBI chief, Chris Wray, has endorsed the theory that the COVID pandemic was the result of a lab leak in China, further straining an increasingly competitive bilateral relationship.

In making his intervention, Wray, who was appointed by Donald Trump, was also taking sides in an internal debate over the origins of Covid, which has become a proxy for the wider tussle between hawks and doves within the administration.

The Biden White House has sought to strike a balance between confronting Beijing over what it sees as unacceptable behavior and trying to steer toward a dangerous confrontation that has the potential to break out into open conflict in Taiwan and the South China Sea.

It’s a balance that has been difficult to maintain in the face of growing debate over the origins of Covid, mounting pressure from both sides in Congress for a more aggressive US approach, and China’s own actions, including more aggressive high-altitude spying. use is included. Balloons and what the US alleges is more active support for Russia and its invasion of Ukraine.

The theory that the pandemic originated from a laboratory leak implicates greater Chinese culpability in causing the global health disaster and covering up its role. The administration’s position has been that there is no consensus on the start of Covid, but Wray told Fox News: “The FBI has assessed for quite some time that the origin of the pandemic is a possible laboratory incident in Wuhan.”

His comments came shortly after the Department of Energy issued a “low confidence” assessment that the virus escaped from a lab. On the other side of the debate, the National Intelligence Council and four other agencies have concluded that the virus originated in animals, as evidenced by peer-reviewed scientific analyzes of the evidence.

The uncertainty within the administration comes at a time when there is bipartisan support in Congress for a more aggressive policy toward China.

The administration has settled on the vague phrase “pacing the challenge” to mark Beijing’s place in its global outlook, but the newly formed House China Committee expressed impatience with such politeness at its opening hearing on Tuesday evening.

“We can call this a ‘strategic contest,'” said Mike Gallagher, the Republican chairman of the committee. “But this is not a polite tennis match. This is an existential struggle about what life in the 21st century will look like, and the most fundamental freedoms are at stake.

His counterpart, the ranking Democrat, Raja Krishnamurthy, said both Republican and Democratic administrations had underestimated the threat posed by China and called for policy building around deterrence.

“We do not want war with the PRC [People’s Republic of China]No cold war, no hot war, we don’t want ‘clash of civilizations’. But, we want a lasting peace. That’s why we have to stop the aggression.

Congress and more than half of US states have banned Chinese-owned social media app TikTok on government equipment, following the lines of Canada, the European Union and some other countries. Mao Ning, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, claimed that the TikTok ban was “exaggerating the concept of national security and abusing state power to suppress companies from other countries”.

China has sought to drive a wedge between Europe and the US, particularly over technology sanctions, but those efforts have been complicated by Beijing’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

China has presented a peace plan that it claims is based on “respect for the sovereignty of all countries”, but that calls for a ceasefire without requiring prior Russian withdrawal from occupied territory. It has been welcomed mainly by Moscow and its allies, including the dictator of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko, who met with Xi Jinping in Beijing on Wednesday to voice his support for the Chinese plan and issue a joint call for a ceasefire. negotiated for.

The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, said there were “positive elements” in the Chinese plan, but added: “If China was really serious about it, the first principle it put forth – sovereignty – would have been costing everything. ” Over the past year, he has been working in support of the restoration of full sovereignty of Ukraine.

“And of course this is doing the opposite of our own efforts to push Russian propaganda and misinformation about the war, to block and deal with Russia in international organizations, and as we’ve recently made clear , is now considering the provision of lethal force assistance to Russia for its aggression against Ukraine, Blinken said.

US officials have tried to tone down tensions in the relationship given their high stakes, but it is proving increasingly difficult. According to Politico, Joe Biden has decided to hold off on imposing more stringent restrictions on US investment in China and will issue an executive order insisting on greater transparency from US investors instead of a sweeping ban on the technology sector.

However, Blinken clarified that if China goes ahead with its reported plans to directly deliver weapons to Russia, there will be a decisive shift in US sanctions policy.

“We will not hesitate to target Chinese companies or officials who violate our sanctions or otherwise engage in Russia’s war effort,” the foreign minister said.

Despite the controversy over the downing of a Chinese high-altitude balloon that had passed over the US the previous month, Blinken met with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi at the Munich Conference on 18 February. Asked during a visit to Uzbekistan on Wednesday whether he would look for another opportunity to talk face-to-face at this week’s G20 meeting in India, Blinken said he had no such plans.

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