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What ongoing tensions over the pandemic mean for the U.S. and China

Tensions continue to rise between the Trump administration and China over the handling of the novel coronavirus pandemic. The U.S. has blamed China for not containing the virus quickly; China has fired back against the criticism, saying the U.S. didn’t listen to early warnings. Nick Schifrin joins Judy Woodruff to discuss why U.S. officials anticipate a continued “pressure campaign” toward China.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now, despite those hopes of renewal in Beijing, there is a renewed confrontation between the Trump White House and China.

    Here to drill down on that is Nick Schifrin.

    So, Nick, given what we have been watching lately, is it White House goal to punish China economically for COVID-19?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There's certainly talk of punishing China economically, Judy, mostly from Republican senators, some kind of reparations, even perhaps not paying U.S. debts.

    Senior administration officials I talk to dismissed the idea of reparations as totally unenforceable and totally dismissed out of hand any kind of talk of debt.

    Instead, these officials tell me they're going to continue their already considerable pressure campaign on China, things like blocking U.S. technology from being transferred to China, blocking Chinese investment in the United States, targeting Chinese companies like Huawei, and trying to punish China for crackdowns in Hong Kong and against more than a million Muslim Uyghurs.

    And these senior administration officials tell me that those efforts are accelerating because of the coronavirus.

    Now, for President Trump, he's vacillated a little bit. He has praised Xi Jinping personally. He hopes that China lives up to its promises in phase one trade deal. But he's also become more critical of China, unafraid to criticize China from the podium, and suggested again yesterday that China failed to prevent the pandemic.

  • President Donald Trump:

    It came out of China. And it could have been stopped. And I wish they stopped it. And so does the whole world wish they stopped it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Administration officials do want to confront China and don't mind the bilateral tension, Judy.

    And the China experts, though, I talk to fear that this is one of the worst moments for U.S.-China relations in more than half a century. And they regret that the two biggest economies in the world are doing more confrontation than collaboration during this global crisis.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Nick, what is the effect of this kind of aggressive rhetoric on the part of the president and others inside of China?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, that's really interesting.

    I talked to China experts who are saying that this is emboldening the hard-liners inside of Beijing, who will say, look, I told you so. You can't trust the Trump administration. They're all China hawks.

    And, therefore, they're arguing that Beijing should become more protectionist and more confrontational. And, of course, Judy, that means that there will be more confrontation, not less, during this crisis. And it's not only Beijing, by the way.

    All over the world, if investors see that the administration is possibly taking this debt talk seriously, that will reduce confidence in the United States.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Nick, you had reported a few weeks ago that there had been a kind of a rhetorical cease-fire between the U.S. and China. Is that now over with?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, that seems to be dead.

    And the Chinese certainly are taking some of this incoming fire by firing back. They are criticizing especially Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. They're criticizing the U.S. for demonizing China.

    And take a listen to the official word, the spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Geng Shuang, speaking today.

  • Geng Shuang (through translator):

    For some time, certain U.S. politicians have disregarded facts and vilified and assaulted China, in an attempt to shirk their own responsibility for their incompetence in fighting this pandemic, divert people's attention, pass the buck, and blame others for their fault.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Now, Judy, that is the official line.

    The Communist Party also controls much of the media. And we have seen a very confrontational line in the media.

    Take a look at this. This is The Global Times, a nationalist newspaper, raising the possibility the U.S. military was somehow connected to the outbreak of COVID-19. That claim was supposed to stop during the cease-fire.

    And take a look at this. This is from Xinhua, another state media outlet, uses as an animation to almost mock the Trump administration for not taking the virus seriously and for blaming China, instead of owning up to the Trump administration's own mistakes.

    And remember here, Judy, that the Chinese government is also under pressure from its own people, who criticize it for having a slow response. And so they too are trying to blame externally, and instead — and insisting that they did everything they could and that this was some kind of natural disease that could not have been prevented.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Nick, they're pushing back on this claim by the president that this virus could have come from a lab inside of China.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yes, we did see the president suggest the possibility that he had intelligence that this virus was accidentally released from a lab.

    There's also another possibility. The intelligence community tells me that it was some kind of wet market accident. And that you saw from an official statement from the Office of Director of National Intelligence, a very rare statement yesterday.

    Look, we talk to epidemiologists, who say it is possible that this was some kind of lab spillover, as they say, but the preponderance of evidence right now is that this was some kind of accident in a wet market or something similar.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Nick Schifrin catching us up on all of this.

    Nick, thanks very much.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Thank you.

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