China’s president Xi Jinping sought to cast his country as the guardian of the multilateral order as he pledged $2bn for the global battle against coronavirus, called for a vaccine to be made available to all, and urged the preservation of international supply chains.
Addressing the annual meeting of the World Health Organization, Mr Xi appealed for international collaboration to deal with “the most serious global public health emergency since the end of the second world war”. He also said China, which has been accused of covering up the outbreak in Wuhan, would support a “comprehensive review of the global response” to the epidemic.
Mr Xi’s remarks at the beginning of the online WHO meeting amounted to an effort to take ground from the US in an increasingly bitter battle over the genesis and handling of the health emergency. President Donald Trump was not expected to address the event and the US has withheld funding from the WHO.
However, Mr Xi’s internationalist message was undercut only hours later when Beijing slapped punitive tariffs on imports of Australian barley amid rising tensions over Canberra’s demands for an investigation into the origins of the virus.
John Ullyot, spokesman for the National Security Council, said the US “welcomes other high-quality, transparent contributions” to fight the pandemic, but described the Chinese offer as an effort to deflect blame. Mr Ullyot said China had “a special responsibility to pay more” because it was the source of the outbreak.
“The Chinese Communist party’s commitment of $2bn is a token to distract from calls from a growing number of nations demanding accountability for the Chinese government’s failure to meet its obligations under international health regulations to tell the truth and warn the world of what was coming,” he said.
Mr Xi urged a revival of worldwide industrial activity and also supported the idea of suspending debt servicing for “the poorest countries”, in an initiative to be carried out jointly with other G20 countries.
“Global industrial and supply chains [should] be kept stable . . . if we are to restore growth to the economy of the world,” he said.
Mr Xi said any vaccine developed in China would be made a “global public good” — a response to widespread concerns that rich and powerful countries, including the US, could gobble up supplies at the expense of poorer counterparts.
“This will be China’s contribution to ensuring vaccine accessibility and affordability in developing countries,” Mr Xi said.
The Chinese president insisted his country had been transparent in its approach to the pandemic despite widely-raised questions over how it dealt with and disclosed the initial coronavirus outbreak. He expressed support for a “comprehensive review of the global response to Covid-19, after it is brought under control”.
“This work should be based on science and professionalism, led by the WHO and conducted in an objective and impartial manner,” he said.
Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Mr Xi’s speech echoed the tone he struck in Davos in 2017 when he defended globalisation days before the inauguration of Mr Trump.
“There was a view at the time that China was going to be the champion of globalisation and present itself as the protector of the multilateral order,” she said. “I remember many people in Europe at the time thinking Xi Jinping was the new leader of the world. Hopefully, people are a bit more realistic and sober-minded today.”
Ms Glaser said Mr Xi was trying to fend off criticism, particularly as anti-China sentiment across Washington reaches new highs and is expected to continue to mount in the run-up to the presidential election in November.
“I don’t think that we should expect that China is going to emerge as the great leader of the multilateral order,” she said. “Xi Jinping is very much on the defensive. He has to prevent the world from condemning China and . . . from seeking remuneration.”
Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO director-general, announced a review of the international response to the pandemic, without giving a timescale, details or naming any countries.
“I will initiate an independent evaluation at the earliest appropriate moment,” which will focus on “experience gained and lessons learnt”, he said on Monday.
António Guterres, the UN secretary-general, underscored the international disarray with a stinging attack on the “hubris” of the international response to the pandemic.
“We’ve heard a lot of expressions about solidarity, but we haven’t seen very much unity in our response to Covid-19,” Mr Guterres said.
In a report, the WHO’s oversight committee hit back at the “rising politicisation of pandemic response”, which it said was a “material impediment to defeating the virus”. It made a series of recommendations, including the independent review, and condemned threats that it said had been directed against WHO staff following public criticism of the organisation.