The FBI chief, Chris Wray, has endorsed the theory that the Covid pandemic was the result of a laboratory leak in China, further sharpening an increasingly combative bilateral relationship.
In making his intervention, Wray, who was appointed by Donald Trump, was also taking sides in an internal debate over Covid’s origins, which has become a proxy for a broader tussle between hawks and doves within the administration.
The Biden White House has sought to strike a balance between confronting Beijing over what it sees as unacceptable behaviour and trying to slow a slide towards a dangerous confrontation, which has the potential to break out into open conflict over Taiwan and in the South China Sea.
It is a balance that has become harder to maintain in the face of the heightened debate over Covid’s origins, increasing pressure for a more hawkish US approach from both parties in Congress, and China’s own actions, including a more aggressive use of high-altitude spy balloons and what the US alleges is more active support for Russia and its invasion of Ukraine.
The theory that the pandemic originated from a lab leak implied greater Chinese culpability in causing the global health disaster and covering up its role. The administration’s position has been that there is no consensus on Covid’s beginnings, but Wray told Fox News: “The FBI has for quite some time now assessed that the origins of the pandemic are most likely a potential lab incident in Wuhan.”
His remarks came soon after the energy department issued a “low confidence” assessment that the virus escaped from a lab. On the other side of the debate, the National Intelligence Council and four other agencies have concluded that the virus originated in animals, as did peer-reviewed scientific analyses of the evidence.
The uncertainty within the administration comes at a time when there is bipartisan support in Congress for a more hawkish policy towards China.
The administration has settled on the ambiguous phrase “pacing challenge” to characterise Beijing’s place in its global outlook, but the newly formulated House China committee expressed impatience with such delicacy at its inaugural hearing on Tuesday evening.
“We may call this a ‘strategic competition’,” Mike Gallagher, the committee’s Republican chairman, said. “But this is not a polite tennis match. This is an existential struggle over what life will look like in the 21st century, and the most fundamental freedoms are at stake.”
His counterpart, the ranking Democrat, Raja Krishnamoorthi, said both Republican and Democratic administrations had underestimated the threat posed by China and called for a policy built around deterrence.
“We do not want a war with the PRC [People’s Republic of China], not a cold war, not a hot war, we don’t want a ‘clash of civilizations’. But, we seek a durable peace. And that is why we have to deter aggression,” Krishnamoorthi said.
Congress and more than half of US states have banned the Chinese-owned social media app TikTok on government devices, in line with Canada, the EU and some other countries. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Mao Ning, claimed the TikTok ban was “overstretching the concept of national security and abusing state power to suppress other countries’ companies”.
China has sought to drive a wedge between Europe and the US, particularly on technology restrictions, but Beijing’s refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has complicated those efforts.
China has presented a peace plan which it claims is based on “respecting the sovereignty of all countries”, but it calls for a ceasefire without necessarily requiring prior Russian withdrawal from occupied territory. It has been welcomed principally by Moscow and its allies, including the Belarus dictator, Alexander Lukashenko, who held talks with Xi Jinping in Beijing on Wednesday, to voice his backing for the Chinese plan and issue a joint call for a ceasefire.
The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said there were “positive elements” in the Chinese plan, but he added: “If China was genuinely serious about this, the very first principle it put out – sovereignty – it would have been spending all of the last year working in support of the restoration of Ukraine’s full sovereignty.
“And of course it’s been doing the opposite in terms of its own efforts to advance Russian propaganda and misinformation about the war, blocking and tackling for Russia in international organisations, and as we’ve made clear recently, now contemplating the provision of lethal military assistance to Russia for its aggression against Ukraine,” Blinken said.
US officials have sought to temper the ratcheting up of tension in the relationship given its high stakes, but that is proving increasingly difficult. According to Politico, Joe Biden has decided to stop short of imposing more drastic restrictions on US investment in China and will issue an executive order emphasising greater transparency from US investors rather than a blanket ban on the technology sector.
However, Blinken made clear that if China moved forward with its alleged plans to arm Russia directly, there would be a decisive shift in US sanctions policy.
“We will not hesitate to target Chinese companies or officials that violate our sanctions or otherwise engage in Russia’s war effort,” the secretary of state said.
Despite the row over the downed Chinese high-altitude balloon which crossed over the US last month, Blinken met his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, at a Munich conference on 18 February. Asked on Wednesday during a visit to Uzbekistan whether he would look for another opportunity to talk face to face at this week’s G20 meeting in India, Blinken said he had no such plans.
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