President Trump called on the United Nations to hold China accountable for the spread of the coronavirus, referring to it as “the China virus” in his annual speech to the world body Tuesday, and accused Beijing of deceiving the world about the danger.
The president took aim at China in unusually strong terms for the annual U.N. General Assembly session, as he has done for months on the campaign trail.
“In the earliest days of the virus, China locked down travel domestically while allowing flights to leave China and infect the world,” Mr. Trump said in an address aimed at U.S. voters as much as it was directed at world leaders. “The United Nations must hold China accountable for their actions.”
On the same day that the confirmed U.S. death toll from COVID-19 passed 200,000, the president said the Chinese “falsely said people without symptoms would not spread the disease.”
“The Chinese government, and the World Health Organization, which is virtually controlled by China, falsely declared that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission,” the president said.
Chinese President Xi Jinping rejected blame.
“Any attempt at politicizing or stigmatizing this issue must be rejected,” Mr. Xi said in his prerecorded address to the assembly.
The Chinese president said Beijing had “no intention to fight either a cold war or a hot one with any country.”
In an apparent reference to the U.S., Mr. Xi said no country should “be allowed to do whatever it likes and be the hegemon, bully or boss of the world.”
White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany said China “hid critical information about transmission of COVID from us, about the severity of COVID, not just from us but from the world. There’s no bigger bully than China when it comes to COVID.”
The 75th session of the U.N. General Assembly was practically empty this year because of the coronavirus. The annual meetings in New York City normally are packed with delegates, and speeches by world leaders have capacity audiences.
Instead, leaders are delivering virtual speeches rather than descending on the U.N. headquarters en masse.
Mr. Trump gave his brief address six weeks before Election Day, as he campaigns on a theme of being tough on China and portraying Democratic nominee Joseph R. Biden as subservient to Beijing, especially on trade.
The president is taking increasingly confrontational actions against China over its crackdown on Hong Kong and its denial of human rights for ethnic minorities. His clashes with Mr. Xi on Tuesday highlighted the widening rift between the two nations. The two leaders demonstrated a close personal relationship early in Mr. Trump’s term.
“Seventy-five years after the end of World War II and the founding of the United Nations, we are once again engaged in a great global struggle,” Mr. Trump said. “We have waged a fierce battle against the invisible enemy, the China virus, which has claimed countless lives in 188 countries.”
He said the U.S. “launched the most aggressive mobilization since the Second World War.”
“We will distribute a vaccine, we will defeat the virus, we will end the pandemic, and we will enter a new era of unprecedented prosperity, cooperation and peace,” the president said.
Mr. Xi took a swipe at the president’s foreign policy without mentioning him by name. Instead, he used a Western literary reference.
“Burying one’s head in the sand like an ostrich or trying to fight globalization with Don Quixote’s lance will go against the trend of history,” Mr. Xi said. “The world will never return to isolation, and no one can sever the ties between countries.”
Mr. Trump also criticized “China’s rampant pollution,” including massive emissions of carbon dioxide and toxic mercury. He said he won’t tolerate those who attack America’s “exceptional environmental record” while ignoring Beijing’s history as a polluter.
China, followed by the U.S., is the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases.
China’s U.N. ambassador, Zhang Jun, said Beijing “resolutely rejects the baseless accusations against China” and accused the U.S. of “abusing the platform of the United Nations to provoke confrontation and create division.”
Mr. Xi also addressed the carbon charge, saying his country will aim to stop emitting carbon dioxide by 2060 and calling for a “green revolution.”
He promised “vigorous policies and measures” that he said will “achieve carbon neutrality before 2060.”
The growing split between China and the U.S. drew a plea from U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
“We are moving in a very dangerous direction,” Mr. Guterres said. “Our world cannot afford a future where the two largest economies split the globe in a Great Fracture, each with its own trade and financial rules and internet and artificial intelligence capacities. A technological and economic divide risks inevitably turning into a geostrategic and military divide. We must avoid this at all costs.”
Mr. Trump, who has withdrawn support for U.N. agencies such as the World Health Organization and Human Rights Council, also chided the world body as ineffective on a wide range of urgent problems.
“If the United Nations is to be an effective organization, it must focus on the real problems of the world,” Mr. Trump said. “This includes terrorism, the oppression of women, forced labor, drug trafficking, human and sex trafficking, religious persecution and the ethnic cleansing of religious minorities.”