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U.S.-China tensions take center stage at WHO summit

The World Health Organization hosted its annual summit Monday. This year, the meeting was intended to enable world leaders to coordinate their responses to the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic. But the session was dominated by ongoing tensions between the U.S. and China -- and criticism from other countries about a vacuum of global leadership. Nick Schifrin joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Today, the World Health Organization hosted an annual summit designed for world leaders to coordinate in their fight against COVID-19. But the World Health Assembly was dominated by tensions between the U.S. and China, and criticisms by the rest of the world of a vacuum of global leadership.

    Nick Schifrin joins me now.

    So, Nick, what is this is main central tension between the U.S. and China?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, the World Health Assembly basically became a proxy battle for the political tensions between the United States and China.

    So, what we heard today was much of what we heard over the last few months, tensions between these two countries over the origins of the virus, over the worldwide leadership of this crisis and, of course, whether the WHO itself did a good job.

    Now, Xi Jinping was the first world leader to speak. He promised to share any Chinese vaccine with the world. He pledged $2 billion for the entire world for COVID-19. And he defend the WHO and China's efforts.

  • President Xi Jinping (through translator):

    We have acted with openness, transparency and responsibility. We have provided information to WHO and relevant countries in a most timely fashion. We have released the genome sequence at the earliest possible time.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And Xi is really responding, of course, to U.S. criticisms that, in the early days of this outbreak, local authorities silenced doctors and Beijing authorities centralized or even destroyed some of the virus samples.

    So, what did we hear from the U.S.? That was lead by Alex Azar, secretary of health and human services. He gave a short speech, but right out of the bat, blamed the WHO and China.

  • Secretary Alex Azar:

    In an apparent attempt to conceal this outbreak, at least one member state made a mockery of their transparency obligations, with tremendous costs for the entire world.

    We saw that WHO failed at its core mission of information-sharing and transparency when member states do not act if good faith. This can not ever happen again.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Nick, we know, based — listening to Secretary Azar just now, the U.S. has been talking about reforms, so that this doesn't happen again. Have any of those reforms been adopted?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In a word, no, Judy, at least not yet.

    So, the U.S. has wanted Taiwan to become the own observer at the WHO. And the U.S. has want fundamental reforms to the WHO, allowing it to enforce countries reporting their outbreaks early on that the U.S. says China did not do.

    Both of those efforts were shelved even before this assembly began. U.S. officials telling me that they are going to try again later this year, and this wasn't really the ideal venue in order to do that.

    Where the U.S. believed it succeeded was to get China to agree to an investigation into COVID-19. But, Judy, this is important. In order to get that resolution passed, it was watered down. It does not mention the word China. It does not mention the word Wuhan, nor does it call for an investigation into the origin of the disease.

    Instead, all it calls for is the international community to identify the animal source of the virus, determine how it entered humans, and to create a kind of lessons learned project, but only after the pandemic ends.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Nick, outside the U.S. and China, what do other countries say?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Many other countries, Judy, defended the WHO and called for global solidarity, including U.S. allies, countries that the U.S. will need to pressure China, namely France and Germany.

    Now, there was a real battle over global leadership. Xi Jinping emphasized the money he was giving, emphasized solidarity. Secretary Azar emphasized neither point.

    And what the U.S. officials I talk to say is, look, we have already pledged $2 billion to the world, on top of $10 billion that the U.S. pledges every year, and $100 billion that the U.S. has been given to Africa, but none of that was highlighted today.

    And so China might not give more money, Judy, but even the U.S. officials I'm talking to admit that it advertises better and it prioritizes events like today much more than the U.S. ever has.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Nick, a different subject, but also the U.S. and China, and that is tensions between the two country — two countries over the tech giant Huawei.

    How has the U.S. in the last few days been increasing pressure over this?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, Huawei has really had this technological.

    Huawei is a $100 billion phone and technology juggernaut. And the U.S. took the most aggressive steps that it has against Huawei, as much of a mortal blow to the company as the U.S. is capable of delivering. Basically, any supplier, whether foreign or the U.S., that makes chips for Huawei, measures chips for Huawei, sells any technology at all to Huawei, if that supplier has any U.S. intellectual property, even like the software that runs the machine that prints the chips, that company will now not be able to sell the Huawei, unless it gets a U.S. exemption.

    The experts I talk to say this will set Huawei back about 18 months and cost them a considerable amount of money. Huawei admitted today that it would set them back, but also said that Beijing wouldn't sit back and let the U.S. destroy the company, Judy.

    So, expect some kind of retaliation from China, perhaps against U.S. companies that still rely on Chinese supply chains in what really has become a technological cold war.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    A lot going on between the U.S. and China right now.

    Nick Schifrin, thank you very much.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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