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U.S., China Accuse Each Other Of Mishandling COVID-19 Outbreak

NOEL KING, HOST:

What is going on between the United States and China? It's a perennial question, and the coronavirus pandemic is raising it yet again. Initially, the Trump administration praised China for its response to the virus. But then more recently, President Trump has criticized the government in Beijing, saying they suppressed initial reports of the virus. NPR's White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez has been looking into what's behind this. Hey, Franco. Good morning.

FRANCO ORDOÑEZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So the U.S. and China often appear to be at odds over various things. So when the administration blames China for the virus, for not doing enough or for suppressing information, what is it actually saying?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, I mean, there are a few things at play. A senior administration official, though, told me that the United States is taking very deliberate steps against China and warning the Communist Party against suppressing accurate information. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo actually spoke about this coordinated effort on Friday in terms of a public health risk.

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MIKE POMPEO: There are a handful of other things we're engaged in to make sure that the right information is out there and accurate information is given. This idea of transparency and accurate information is very important. It's how we protect American people from something like this ever happening again.

KING: OK, so Pompeo is saying what we need from China is the truth; we need them to be transparent. The complicating factor here is that the United States and China are competing right now in a lot of different ways - over economics, over trade, over military issues. So how does that play in here?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. It's no secret at all that China aims to be very powerful, geopolitically. And there are concerns among some close to the administration that China could try to use this crisis to build leverage through its control of many critical commodities. There is so much discussion right now on the need for masks in the United States - well, China produces many of them.

Tim Morrison, he led biodefense at the National Security Council in the Trump administration, and who is - he's now a fellow at the Hudson Institute. I spoke with him. He said the United States has a lot of tough choices to make.

TIM MORRISON: One of the choice - tough choices we have to make is we are going to have to figure out how to uncouple or decouple our pharmaceutical, our health care commodity supply chains from China.

ORDOÑEZ: The problem, Morrison warns, is that China is in control of these commodities and could potentially have benign reasons for doing this - to protect their own citizens - or could have more malicious motivations, to restrict access to those supply chains.

KING: It also illustrates just how dependent the United States is on China, and vice versa, when it comes to things like, you know, getting goods from that country. One of the interesting developments here is that President Trump has started calling the - COVID-19, the coronavirus, the Chinese virus. He seems to be doing it very deliberately. There was a point - a picture of his notes, where he'd crossed out the word corona and written Chinese. What has the response to that been?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, it's not been good. There is no question that there has been a lot of name-calling. Not only has Trump used this - used those terms, but also Secretary of State Pompeo and National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien has referred to this as the Chinese flu or Wuhan flu, referring to where it was first identified. All those things have really raised the ire of the Chinese. Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says this is really counterproductive.

BONNIE GLASER: But at this point, it seems to me to be quite a waste of energy for the U.S. and Chinese governments to be focused on that question when they should be working hard on protecting their own citizens, contributing where they can to help other countries around the world that are very ill-prepared to deal with this virus.

ORDOÑEZ: Glaser said it's clear that the president thinks it's important that his base believe that he is doing the right thing and he's putting America first. Some of his comments also have been put in the context of explaining why he is asking Congress for a trillion-dollar aid package. And we also know that President Trump is not one to back down from a fight, and he himself has said that he didn't like the false suggestion that the Chinese government - by the Chinese government that this was spread by the U.S. military.

KING: White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thank you.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.