Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Friday pressed a senior Chinese Communist Party official for cooperation with an international investigation into the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic, a Biden administration official said.
Mr. Blinken made the demand during a phone call with CCP Politburo member Yang Jiechi, said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity.
Beijing officials told the World Health Organization last month that China regarded the investigation into the virus’ origin in its country to be finished.
The joint Chinese government-WHO probe earlier this year concluded that a laboratory leak of the virus was unlikely and should not be investigated further.
Since then, however, U.S. intelligence officials have said a lab leak of the virus is one of two main theories for the origin point of the pandemic. Outbreaks of COVID-19 began in Wuhan in December 2019. The other theory is that the virus emerged from an animal to infect humans, although the evidence for the so-called zoonotic leap theory is scant and no animals in China have been found to carry the virus behind COVID-19, known as SARS-CoV-2.
After initially claiming that the virus spread from a Wuhan wild animal market, Chinese officials shifted their focus to the United States. They said the virus originated at U.S. Army laboratories and called for an investigation.
The administration official did not provide further details on the exchange.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement on the Blinken-Yang phone call that the secretary “stressed the importance of cooperation and transparency regarding the origin of the virus, including the need for [World Health Organization] phase 2 expert-led studies in China.”
The WHO has launched the second part of an investigation into the virus’ origin, but it is unlikely to find the cause of the outbreak without help from China.
Mr. Price said Mr. Blinken also discussed the United States’ comprehensive policy review on North Korea and the need for Washington and Beijing to work together for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.
“Secretary Blinken and Director Yang continued discussions on shared global challenges, including Iran, Burma and the climate crisis,” he said.
“The secretary underscored U.S. concern over the deterioration of democratic norms in Hong Kong and the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity against predominantly Muslim Uyghurs and members of other ethnic and religious minority groups in Xinjiang.”
Mr. Price said Mr. Blinken also called on China to halt its pressure campaign against Taiwan and resolve cross-Taiwan Strait issues peacefully.
China’s military has sharply increased provocative aerial and naval incursions into Taiwan’s self-defense zone, prompting frequent scrambling of interceptor jets and other military responses.
Mr. Blinken also spoke about U.S. and Canadian citizens detained in China and exit bans. He called for the immediate release of those “wrongfully detained,” Mr. Price said.
China has engaged in what the State Department calls “hostage diplomacy” aimed at freeing a detained Huawei Technologies executive Meng Wanzhou, who is awaiting extradition from Vancouver to the United States.
In response to Ms. Meng’s arrest, Chinese authorities arrested two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been held for over two years.
China made no mention of the virus inquiry in state media reports on the call, which indicated that Mr. Blinken sought the telephone exchange.
“China is committed to achieving non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect and win-win cooperation with the U.S.,” Mr. Yang was quoted as saying. “At the same time, China is firmly committed to safeguarding its sovereignty, security and development interests.”
The Chinese official, who is also director of the CCP Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs, said he urged Mr. Blinken to follow “the spirit of cooperation” that President Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping noted in a Jan. 31 phone call.
Mr. Yang also repeated Chinese boilerplate talking points on Taiwan. He said the island is a core interest of China and part of China.
“We urge the U.S. to abide by the one-China principle, honor its promise, prudently and properly handle Taiwan-related question, and take concrete actions to safeguard the overall interests of China-U.S. relations and peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait,” Mr. Yang said.
The Chinese official told Mr. Blinken that the only system in the world is the international order centered on the United Nations and international law and not the international order advocated by “a few countries.”
China Central Television reported that Mr. Blinken said a recent series of meetings between the United States and China boosted ties between the two countries and that the United States looks forward to increasing contacts and exchanges at all levels.
Mr. Blinken said the United States adheres to the understanding of the one-China principle and three joint communiques from the 1980s outlining bilateral ties.