By Zachary Cohen, Alex Marquardt and Kylie Atwood, CNN
President Donald Trump says he has declared war on the coronavirus in an effort to contain the outbreak and its economic impact here at home, but on the world stage, his administration is engaged in another battle as the US and China fight to shape the narrative about the pandemic’s origins.
Trump and senior members of the administration have attempted to brand the outbreak as the result of a “Chinese virus” as they ramp up accusations that Beijing failed to identify, stop or warn about the virus early on.
The administration has also implemented a coordinated messaging campaign which includes talking points sent out by the National Security Council pushing US officials to highlight China’s alleged “cover-up” and subsequent disinformation campaign, CNN has learned.
Still, it remains unclear if the administration has a comprehensive strategy in place to counter Beijing’s disinformation push as Chinese officials continue to overtly spread false and misleading information about the virus with little recourse beyond strongly-worded statements from US officials.
Tensions have been brewing for weeks between Washington and Beijing over who is to blame for the outbreak. China continues to deny that the virus originated there while top US officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, have pointed the finger directly at Beijing.
US officials have long been skeptical about information coming from China, including the number of cases it has publicly reported, but the diplomatic row between the two countries has escalated in recent days.
Despite his initial praise for Chinese President Xi Jinping, Trump has struck a more critical tone of late regarding Beijing’s handling of the outbreak and efforts to shift blame onto the US. “I wish they could have told us earlier about what was going on inside. We didn’t know about it until it started coming out publicly, but I wish they could have told us earlier about it because we could have come up with a solution,” he said Saturday during a White House briefing.
Beijing did not hesitate to fire back. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson said Monday that the US is attempting to defame the Chinese government, shift responsibility and find a scapegoat, calling claims by American officials that the virus originated in Wuhan “immoral and irresponsible.”
“I think many people, when the pandemic first started, thought this is an opportunity for global cooperation,” Dr. Matthew Kroenig, a former Defense Department and CIA official who now works as a professor at Georgetown University told CNN.
“What we’ve seen instead is that it’s just become a new arena for this great power rivalry to play out,” he said, adding that autocratic regimes, and China in particular, are using disinformation to try to advance other geopolitical goals, namely positioning itself as a responsible global leader.
The ongoing war of words has been fueled by allegations from top administration officials that China is actively spreading disinformation about the virus’ origins in an effort to cast blame on the US, and other nations, for the current global pandemic.
Earlier this month, China’s ambassador in Washington was summoned to the State Department over a tweet from Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lijian Zhoa amplifying a growing conspiracy theory that the coronavirus did not originate China and may have been brought there by the US Army.
“When you have the Chinese Ambassador and the Foreign Minister saying through their propaganda machine that the United States military somehow concocted this virus and spread it in China, it’s absolutely false,” Texas Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told CNN in an interview Monday.
“Everybody knows the truth here, and the truth needs to come out. And they don’t want the truth to come out. That’s why they’re starting this disinformation campaign,” he said.