On July 6 the United States formally notified the World Health Organisation of its plans to withdraw from the United Nations body in a three-line letter.
The move, which will take a year to complete, was clearly signalled in advance – US President Donald Trump has repeatedly accused the WHO of being a Chinese “puppet” and of failing to contain the coronavirus pandemic when it had the chance.
In another earlier four-page letter about suspending US funding to the WHO in May, Trump said the WHO had demonstrated an “alarming lack of independence from the People’s Republic of China”, adding he could not use “American taxpayer dollars to continue to finance an organisation that, in its present state, is so clearly not serving America’s interests”.
The US government has provided the WHO with about $450 million of contributions a year – in a mixture of mandatory and voluntary payments. It was the largest contributor by far with China paying a much lower sum – in previous years as little as 16% of the US contribution. However, since Trump froze US payments in April, China has donated an extra $50 million to the organisation’s Covid-19 fund – helping to fill the financial and political void the US withdrawal is creating.
So what does this mean for China? Trump’s April letter can be read many ways. Some of the criticisms he levels at the WHO are probably valid – mistakes were made and a fuller review of the response to the pandemic is required when the crisis passes.
But the tone of his letters is defensive and the arguments he deploys fits with those that he has used to threaten cuts to NATO funding and to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change: namely that the US gives too much and gets too little in return.
His letter also claimed that the WHO ignored early reports of Covid-19 in the Lancet medical journal. The magazine had to publicly correct the president, saying he had misdated the Lancet report by a month – meaning it was published after, not before, China had alerted the WHO to the Covid-19 outbreak, which is widely thought to have originate in Wuhan in December last year.
But his critics at home – such as the majority of news anchors on CNN – say Trump’s casting of the WHO being a Chinese pawn is largely an attempt to deflect from his own administration’s dire handling of the Covid-19 outbreak in the US (a charge that runs from denying it was a problem in the crucial early weeks; the flawed testing at the outset; his discouraging the use of masks and his pushing for an early reopening in states like Florida; to name but a few).
That said, the tactic gives him a chance to rehash all his accusations that China covered up the initial outbreak and that the WHO was also at fault – accusations that contain a modicum of truth. While some might agree with his narrative that the outbreak in the US is China’s fault, the withdrawl from the WHO comes at a high cost. Critics say it puts lives at risk (in the US and elsewhere) and gives China another chance to look like the responsible global player, who steps up when the US steps down.
Beijing has seized the opportunity with both hands. “This is another example of the US pursuing unilateralism and quitting international treaties and organisations,” said Zhao Lijian, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry. “We urge the US to fulfill its due international responsibilities and obligations and behave as a responsible major country.”
The People’s Daily dismissed the US move as “extremely irresponsible to the health and life safety of the American people and all mankind”, while the Global Times took the chance to have a dig at the US democratic system. “The partisan politics of the United States can be so brutal and arbitrary that it influences national policy,” said the newspaper’s editor Hu Xijin in a weibo post, hinting at the superiority of one-party rule.
Meanwhile, Chinese internet users have compared the decision to an uncooperative member leaving a WeChat discussion group. “Remember to pay this year’s WHO contribution before leaving the group,” one widely forwarded comment suggested.
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