(This was originally posted in Bloomberg News)
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed his Chinese counterpart in a phone call Friday to allow a new expert-led study into the origins of Covid-19, but China’s top diplomat called theories that the virus leaked from a Wuhan lab an absurd story, according to readouts from both sides.
In the call with Politburo member Yang Jiechi, Blinken “stressed the importance of cooperation and transparency regarding the origin of the virus, including the need for WHO Phase 2 expert-led studies in China,” the State Department said in a statement. Yang said China supports cooperation but won’t tolerate what he said were attempts to smear China, according to state broadcaster China Central Television.
The call was the first time the two top diplomats had spoken since an in-person meeting in Alaska in March that got off to a rocky start, with each side criticizing the other in front of television cameras. Tensions that began under the Trump administration have only worsened under President Joe Biden, who has challenged Chinese leaders over human rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and debate over whether China has been sufficiently transparent in sharing information about the Covid-19 outbreak.
During the phone call. Yang urged the U.S. to get bilateral relations back on track, CCTV said. He said dialogue and cooperation should be the norm for China and the U.S. Group of Seven leaders meeting this weekend in Cornwall, U.K., are set to call for a fresh, transparent study into the origins of the virus that would be convened by the World Health Organization.
Beijing officials have repeatedly denied that the virus leaked from the lab, and pointed to a WHO report earlier this year that said the most likely origin was natural. Yang also urged the U.S. to tread carefully on issues relating to Taiwan and said the U.S. shouldn’t use human rights issues to interfere with internal politics in other countries.
Top diplomats from the G-7 called last month for China to respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, condemning Beijing’s treatment of its Uyghur minority over forced labor and compelled sterilization. Beijing rejects accusations that human rights abuses are being committed in Xinjiang.
Blinken “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,” the State Department said. The State Department said Blinken also called for the two sides to work together on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and the two discussed “shared global challenges, including Iran, Burma, and the climate crisis.”