When he accused the World Health Organization (WHO) on Tuesday of going soft on China over the COVID-19 pandemic and suspended U.S. payments to the agency, President Donald Trump put the strategic question of the century on the table. What’s the best way to win the global competition with Beijing: America First confrontation or multinational cooperation? The fight over the WHO shows why the right answer is a matter of life and death for hundreds of millions of people.
Trump and his allies say that the Geneva-based WHO botched the global pandemic response by praising Beijing’s handling of the crisis, parroting its denial of the COVID-19 threat, and opposing travel restrictions to and from the country. “The WHO willingly took China’s assurances to face value,” Trump said Tuesday as he announced the aid suspension at the White House. “Reliance on China’s disclosures likely caused a 20-fold increase in cases worldwide,” he said.
Even some of the President’s critics agree that the WHO was too deferential to China at the start of the crisis. But they say undermining the agency is self-defeating. Since WWII, the U.S. and liberal democracies have fought to define the missions and standards of international bodies like the WHO. Cutting funding to the agency in the middle of a global crisis, the critics say, just guarantees more, not less, sway by China at a time when the country is seeking to expand its influence over international bodies. “If we cede the playing field, obviously China is going to fill in that space,” says Amb. Joseph DeTrani, former CIA director of East Asia Operations. “They are doing that as we speak.”
It’s not just the WHO. The attack on the agency follows a Trump administration pattern of threatening to strip U.S. funding from some international organizations and to withdraw from others, like the U.N. Human Rights Council. That too plays to China’s broader strategy of transforming the U.N. “into a platform for its own foreign policy,” says Kristine Lee, Associate Fellow with the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security. The Chinese Communist Party sees COVID-19 as an “opportunity to launch itself onto the global stage” that has “catalyzed a renewed sense of ambition,” she says.
Such ambitions are relatively new. Deng Xiaoping, the successor to China’s revolutionary founder Chairman Mao Zedong, adopted an isolationist strategy, and for years China avoided international entanglements. But the current Chinese President Xi Jinping has sought expansion of influence in international bodies. China has already maneuvered Party officials into top spots in at least four of the U.N.’s 15 specialized agencies, while the United States leads only one. And China’s efforts to influence the WHO, the health arm of the U.N., are a good example of that strategy, experts on both sides of the debate say.
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At the WHO, China’s contributions have grown by 52% since 2014 to approximately $86 million over the agency’s two-year funding cycle, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. That remains a modest sum when compared to the U.S.’s $839 million over the same period, but it bolsters the idea that China is a rising rather than a static or declining influence within the U.N. China has exerted indirect political influence at the same time. Beijing was a strong backer of the nomination of now-Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, a former senior Ethiopian government official, and Beijing invited him to speak in China before his 2017 election to the position.
It remains unclear just how much sway such moves have actually yielded Beijing inside the WHO, but the agency’s response to China’s role in the COVID-19 outbreak has drawn criticism from many quarters. When the crisis began early this year, the WHO praised China’s transparency in fighting the virus, and Dr. Tedros declined to criticize Beijing’s early moves to silence and even jail medical professionals who dared mentioned the spreading malady. The WHO also bolstered Beijing’s early dismissal of fears that the virus was highly contagious, tweeting on January 14th that there was no evidence of “human to human” spread, an epidemiological term of art meaning it passes easily from one person to the next to the next. When Trump imposed travel restrictions on China, Dr. Tedros warned such restrictions could increase “fear and stigma, with little public health benefit.” And the WHO has failed to secure actual DNA samples of the virus, which could help determine where the outbreak started, possibly in China’s controversial live-animal “wet markets,” and how much it has evolved.
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More than two million people have been infected by COVID 19 and 136,908 have been killed by the virus as of Wednesday evening, according to Johns Hopkins University. “Had the WHO done its job to get medical experts into China to objectively assess the situation on the ground, and to call out China’s lack of transparency, the outbreak could have been contained at its source,” Trump said. “This would have saved thousands of lives and avoided worldwide economic damage”
In its defense, WHO Executive Director Dr. Michael Ryan told reporters from Geneva Wednesday that the organization had alerted the world to an outbreak of “a completely new respiratory virus early in January” but that it took time to establish with certainty how contagious it was. Dr. Maria Van Kerkhove, who heads the WHO’s COVID 19 technical team, added that the agency had warned by January 11th that the virus was spread via “respiratory droplets” and physical contact.
In his remarks with his two colleagues Wednesday, Dr. Tedros said that he regrets Trump’s decision. His agency is now “assessing“ how programs as varied as fighting polio to combatting new cases of the hemorrhagic fever Ebola in central Africa will be affected by any funding cuts. He said he welcomed an investigation by member states including the United States, once the virus was under control. “No doubt, areas for improvement will be identified. And there will be lessons for all of us to learn,” he said.
Since January, the Trump Administration itself has vacillated between attacking China for its handling of COVID-19 and trying to benefit from China’s growing economic might. The U.S. signed the first phase of a massive trade deal with China on January 15th, just a day after the WHO had seconded Beijing’s assertion that the virus was not spreading from human to human. On February 7th, Trump lavished praise on Chinese leader Xi, telling reporters that he was handling the pandemic “very well” and tweeting that “Great discipline is taking place in China, as President Xi strongly leads what will be a very successful operation. We are working closely with China to help!”
Now Trump says U.S. funding to the WHO will be stopped while its pandemic response is reviewed. It’s not clear how much aid that immediately affects, as much of those monies are already appropriated by Congress. The U.S. is the WHO’s largest funder, currently contributing almost 15% of the budget, according to the WHO’s figures. As Trump restricts U.S. assistance, other nations have stepped up to answer the U.N.’s call for more than two billion dollars to fight the virus, including U.S. ally Britain pledging more than $80 million dollars to the WHO, and Canada pledging $50 million.
And Trump’s move has opened the door for Beijing. China’s U.N. Ambassador in Geneva pledged another $20 million to fight COVID 19 in early March, to the tweeted delight of Dr. Tedros. China has also rushed medical aid to Europe, the Mideast and even the U.S., positioning itself as a global leader in fighting the pandemic. Andrew Weber, former State Department deputy coordinator for Ebola response, called the Trump move “cutting off your nose to spite your face.” “The WHO is the CDC to the world,” says Weber, who is now a senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Council on Strategic Risks. “By all means, use our influence to press for reform, but don’t cut them off in the middle of a pandemic,” he says.
Michael McCaul, the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, says that China is a malign influence, and that there should be some sort of bipartisan investigation into what he calls “the worst coverup in history” by Beijing. The WHO “through incompetence or complicity” is responsible for the outbreak becoming a global pandemic, the Texas Republican tells TIME. But he foreshadowed that the multiple congressional investigations to come are likely to devolve into Republicans placing all blame on China, while Democrats attack what they see as Trump’s disastrously slow pandemic response. “I’m concerned that if it becomes partisan oversight, that it loses credibility because it’s going to be more focused on the response and more targeted at the Administration, rather than at what the Chinese Communist Party did with the WHO…starting this whole thing in first place,” McCaul says.
Trump critics like Democratic Congressman Adam Schiff of California agree that China and the WHO mishandled the pandemic, but Schiff calls the WHO funding cut an “exercise in distraction” from Trump’s “spectacular failure” in responding to the crisis. Schiff is among a handful of senior lawmakers proposing a bipartisan 9/11-style commission to investigate China, the WHO and the Administration’s handling of the pandemic. Schiff warned that the attack on the international agency could backfire. “As America alienates these international organizations and threatens their funding and criticizes their work, you have China starting to invest more of its resources.” That investment is drawing U.S. allies away, he tells TIME. “Some of them are betting on China as being the rising power, and they see America under Trump as a declining power.”
There is evidence to support the idea that Trump’s America First approach is aiding China’s ambitions. When the U.S. dropped is membership to the U.N. human rights body, Secretary Mike Pompeo cited its “chronic bias against Israel,” declaring that the U.S. would not be “complicit” when organizations “undermine our national interests and our allies.” But without the U.S. there to challenge, China was able to lobby unopposed to add Venezuela’s dictatorial regime to the council, despite its widespread campaign of violence against its own people, and Beijing has been able to block criticism of its own repression of ethnic Uighurs in Xinjian Province.
Whatever the long-term costs of Trump’s moves, he may see short term gains. GOP strategist Alice Stewart tells TIME the anti-WHO move will play well with Trump’s base. “The President is just trying to make sure that if America is such a huge supporter of these international organizations, they should be willing to have our back. We are not an ATM for the WHO, and President Trump is making that quite clear,” she says. And while the Democratic narrative will be based on detailed timelines of Trump’s quotes and actions, and explanations of complex tools of national power like the Defense Production Act, the Republicans’ narrative will be much simpler: China lied, and people died.
A Trump confidant who has worked on the President’s 2016 campaign called the move against the international body “a home run,” as the WHO “is viewed as complicit” with the Chinese Communist Party. China is “shaping up to be the new Mexico” for Trump voters in 2020, he said, speaking anonymously to discuss Trump’s re-election campaign strategy. “Thanks to COVID, China has now become weaponized to our advantage.”
Trump’s detractors see the political logic of deflecting criticism of the glacial White House COVID-19 response onto a feckless global organization. But in the long term, they say, it risks further advancing Beijing’s political, economic and social interests around the world at America’s expense.
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