US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo unleashed a blistering verbal assault against the Chinese Communist Party, slamming its decision to target Australia with barley tariffs for the “simple act” of asking for an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus.
“We stand with Australia and the more than 120 nations now who have taken up the American call for an inquiry into the origins of the virus, so we can understand what went wrong and save lives now, and into the future,” Mr Pompeo told reporters in Washington on Wednesday (Thursday AEST).
Mr Pompeo, who has become the administration’s most vocal anti-China critic, let rip with a tirade against Beijing that he said was needed because the media’s focus on the current pandemic risks “missing the bigger picture” of China’s threat.
“First, basic facts. China’s been ruled by a brutal, authoritarian regime, a communist regime since 1949,” he said.
“For several decades we thought the regime would become more like us through trade, scientific exchanges, diplomatic outreach, letting them in the WTO as a developing nation.”
“That didn’t happen.”
“We greatly underestimated the degree to which Beijing is ideologically and politically hostile to free nations. The whole world is waking up to that fact.”
Mr Pompeo went on to attack the regime’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak, which he says has accelerated the world’s “more realistic understanding of communist China”.
“The party chose to destroy live virus samples instead of sharing them or asking us to help secure them.”
“The Chinese Communist Party chose to threaten Australia with economic retribution for the simple act of asking for an independent inquiry into the origins of the virus. It’s not right.”
The secretary of state’s broadside comes a day after the Morrison government won unanimous support at the World Health Organisation’s annual forum for a probe into the pandemic’s origins.
Canberra’s push for an inquiry has coincided with a dramatic escalation in China’s threats against Australia and its exporters, including last weekend’s decision to slap an 80 per cent tariff on imports of barley.
Mr Pompeo also took another shot at the WHO’s director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus for excluding Taiwan from this week’s World Health Assembly in Geneva.
“I understand that Dr Tedros’s unusually close ties to Beijing started long before this current pandemic, and that’s deeply troubling,” Mr Pompeo said.
Dr Tedros, in his opening remarks at a press conference on Wednesday, made no reference to the WHO resolution’s demanding an inquiry into the pandemic’s origins.
Instead he focussed on its calls for the classification of any vaccines as “a global public good for health”.
The omission is likely to further anger his critics inside the White House.
The Trump administration has been critical of Dr Tedros’s handling of the crisis and earlier this month the President announced he has cut funding to the global health watchdog. The US contributes about $US450 million to the WHO’s annual $US2.3 billion budget.
Since then the administration has sent mixed signals over recent days over whether it will restore the money or make its withdrawal permanent, depriving the organisation of resources from its biggest donor just as the pandemic takes off in vulnerable developing economies.
Mr Pompeo also noted a recent US Defence Department proposal that would seek to speed-up an end to America’s reliance on China for rare earth minerals that are critical for milliary weapons and systems.
The DoD has reportedly proposed budget legislation that would raise how much it is allowed to spend on rare earth elements in munitions and missiles to as much as $US1.75 billion ($2.65 billion) and US$350 million for microelectronics.
Australian listed Lynas is one of two companies that have been chosen by the US government to prepare designs for a heavy rare earth metals processing facility on US soil. That decision came several months after Australia and the US government last year agreed to help develop each other’s critical minerals.
“You saw… the Department of Defense make announcements about work on rare earth minerals so that, again, we wouldn’t be dependent on a nation that has demonstrated its unreliability, its willingness to steal our intellectual property, all the things that, frankly, for decades – and this isn’t remotely partisan,” Mr Pompeo said.
“Democrat presidents, Republican presidents all just turned the other way because of 1.5 billion people and the opportunity for enormous markets, and this hope, this hope that engagement would lead to a change in the behaviour of the Chinese Communist Party.
“It didn’t happen.”
Analysts warn the administration’s rhetorical attacks on China, led by Mr Pompeo, will intensify in coming months as the November presidential election looms.
Mr Trump’s own language has hardened in recent weeks. On Tuesday he told reporters that he is having second thoughts about his signature “phase one” trade deal with Beijing signed in mid-January just as the COVID-19 outbreak became widely known outside China.
“I feel differently now about that deal than I did three months ago,” Mr Trump said.
America is due to hit 100,000 COVID-19 deaths in the next seven to 10 days, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention after fatalities rose by 933 on Wednesday to 90,340. Total reported cases grew by more than 24,000 to 1.5 million.
By Jacob Greber