The headlines will be about global cooperation between world leaders on tackling the global coronavirus pandemic.
But on Friday, President Joe Biden used a meeting of the Asia Pacific trade group APEC to issue a warning to China‘s Xi Jinping to rein in his South China Sea ambitions with a clear declaration of U.S. commitment to a ‘free and open Indo-Pacific.’
After the meeting, the leaders issued a statement committed to accelerating access to COVID-19 vaccines.
But any sense that tensions with Beijing had evaporated were overtaken when Washington announced fresh sanctions on China over its Hong Kong crackdown.
It illustrates the difficulty of bringing together disparate leaders, incuding Russia’s Vladimir Putin, to tackle the global pandemic.
So although a White House readout of the meeting said Biden welcomed the chance to talk with the other leaders, it made clear that the U.S. would remain engage in the Indo-Pacific for generations to come.
‘President Biden emphasized the importance of multilateral cooperation and reiterated his commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacificm,’ it said.
‘He put forward a vision for the region that is affirmative, values-based, and transparent.’
President Biden. ’emphasized the importance of multilateral cooperation and reiterated his commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,’ according to a readout of the meeting from the White House. Although world leaders found agreement on COVID-19 vaccines the line shows the tensions that remain between China and the West
Xi Jinping of China was among the world leaders at the virtual meeting of Asia Pacific trade group APEC. The main issue of discussion was tackling the COVID-19 pandemic
The USS Benfold (pictured) on Monday entered the disputed waters near the Paracel Islands, which China claims as its own territory
The US Navy said the Benfold asserted navigational rights and freedoms in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands consistent with international law
The barbed remark comes amid friction between China and the West on multiple fronts.
This week China claimed it drove a U.S. Navy warship out of its territorial water. The claim was disputed by the U.S. which said the U.S.S. was conducting a ‘freedom of navigation’ operation in international waters around the disputed Paracel Islands in the South China Sea.
A day earlier, Secretary of State Antony Blinken had described freedom of the seas as an ‘enduring’ interest of all nations as he marked the fifth anniversary of an international ruling that found in favor of the Philippines, against China’s maritime claims.
‘Nowhere is the rules-based maritime order under greater threat than in the South China Sea,’ he said.
‘The People’s Republic of China continues to coerce and intimidate Southeast Asian coastal states, threatening freedom of navigation in this critical global throughway.’
At the same time there remain lasting questions about the origins of the coronavirus and whether China has done enough to help the international response.
And Friday offered a reminder of another source of tension between China and the U.S., as the State Department announced sanctions on seven Chinese individuals connected with Hong Kong.
Blinken said the U.S. would continue to stand up for the rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong which were guaranteed in the deal that returned the British colony to China in 1997.
‘Over the past year, People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Hong Kong officials have systematically undermined Hong Kong’s democratic institutions, delayed elections, disqualified elected lawmakers from office, and forced officials to take loyalty oaths to keep their jobs,’ he said.
‘Since protests began in 2019, local authorities have arrested thousands for speaking out against government policies with which they disagreed, including for their social media posts and for attending vigils.’
Coronavirus is another source of tension.
Biden has asked the intelligence community to redouble their efforts to find out whether it might have escaped from a Chinese lab.
And last month he made clear he was unimpressed by the level of co-operation shown by Beijing to World Health Organization investigators.
‘China is trying very hard to project itself as a responsible and very, very forthcoming nation, and they are trying very hard to talk about how they’re helping the world in terms of COVID-19 and vaccines,’ Biden said during a news conference in Geneva after a summit with Putin.
‘Look, certain things you don’t have to explain to the people of the world, they see the results. Is China really actually trying to get to the bottom of this?’
For its part, the WHO is proposing a second phase of investigations, including audits of laboratories in Wuhan, and demanding greater transparency from Chinese authorities.
Director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus presented the plan to members states on Friday.
‘Finding the origins of this virus is a scientific exercise that must be kept free from politics,’ he said,’ according to Reuters.
‘For that to happen, we expect China to support this next phase of the scientific process by sharing all relevant data in a spirit of transparency.’
APEC leaders issued a statement after a virtual meeting chaired by New Zealand.
With the world struggling with fresh waves of COVID-19 infections, exacerbated by the spread of the Delta variant, they said they would encourage the voluntary transfer of vaccine production.
‘The pandemic continues to have a devastating impact on our region’s people and economies,’ they said.
‘Our efforts to diagnose and treat COVID-19 continue to be essential. But we will only overcome this health emergency by accelerating equitable access to safe, effective, quality-assured, and affordable COVID-19 vaccines.’
Did coronavirus originate in Chinese government laboratory?
The Wuhan Institute of Virology has been collecting numerous coronaviruses from bats ever since the SARS outbreak in 2002. They have also published papers describing how these bat viruses have interacted with human cells.
US Embassy staff visited the lab in 2018 and ‘had grave safety concerns’ over the protocols which were being observed at the facility.
The lab is just a few miles from the Huanan wet market which is where the first cluster of infections erupted in Wuhan.
The market is just a few hundred yards from another lab called the Wuhan Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (WHCDC). The WHCDC kept disease-ridden animals in its labs, including some 605 bats.
Those who support the theory argue that Covid-19 could have leaked from either or both of these facilities and spread to the wet market. Most argue that this would have been a virus they were studying rather than one which was engineered.
Last year a bombshell paper from the Beijing-sponsored South China University of Technology recounted how bats once attacked a researcher at the WHCDC and ‘blood of bat was on his skin.’
The report says: ‘Genome sequences from patients were 96% or 89% identical to the Bat CoV ZC45 coronavirus originally found in Rhinolophus affinis (intermediate horseshoe bat).’
It describes how the only native bats are found around 600 miles away from the Wuhan seafood market and that the probability of bats flying from Yunnan and Zhejiang provinces was minimal.
In addition there is little to suggest the local populace eat the bats as evidenced by testimonies of 31 residents and 28 visitors.
Instead the authors point to research being carried out within 300 yards at the WHCDC.
One of the researchers at the WHCDC described quarantining himself for two weeks after a bat’s blood got on his skin, according to the report. That same man also quarantined himself after a bat urinated on him.
And he also mentions discovering a live tick from a bat – parasites known for their ability to pass infections through a host animal’s blood.
‘The WHCDC was also adjacent to the Union Hospital where the first group of doctors were infected during this epidemic,’ the report says.
‘It is plausible that the virus leaked around and some of them contaminated the initial patients in this epidemic, though solid proofs are needed in future study.’