Biden dodges pressing ‘old friend’ Xi Jinping on COVID-19 origins

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President Joe Biden denied being “old friends” with Chinese President Xi Jinping despite referring to their “friendship” in the past as he dodged a question about whether he would personally press the Chinese leader to stop blocking investigations into COVID-19’s origins.

The United States and its allies are hoping for a second COVID-19 origins investigation into the World Health Organization in China, despite the joint study team’s visit to Wuhan earlier this year that essentially dismissed the lab leak hypothesis as a failure. The WHO-China report said a lab leak was “extremely unlikely” and that a jump from animals to humans was most likely the cause of the pandemic. Meeting minutes from discussions between Wuhan lab scientists and the WHO-China team reveal lab leak concerns were referred to as “conspiracy theories.”

During a press conference in Geneva following a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Biden was asked, “In the spirit, Mr. President, of you saying that there is no substitute for face-to-face dialogue, and also with what you said at NATO that the biggest problems right now are Russia and China — you've spoken many times about how you have spent perhaps more time with President Xi than any other world leader. So is there going to become a time where you might call him — old friend to old friend — and ask him to open up China to the World Health Organization investigators who are trying to get to the bottom of COVID-19?”

“Let’s get something straight: we know each other well — we’re not old friends,” Biden retorted. “It’s just pure business.”

The president did not point to any specific action he would take to get China to cooperate on understanding the emergence of the coronavirus pandemic.

“The impact the world’s attitude toward China as it develops. 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 are taking and helping the world in terms of COVID-19 and vaccines, and they’re trying very hard,” Biden said. “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?”

Biden added: “One thing that we did discuss, as I told you in the EU and at the G-7 and with NATO, what we should be doing, and what I’m going to make an effort to do, is rally the world to work on what is going to be the physical mechanism available to detect early on the next pandemic and have a mechanism by which we can respond to it and respond to it early. It’s gonna happen. It’s gonna happen. We need to do that.”

Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security adviser, said Thursday that the U.S. was committed to having Biden talk with Xi either by phone or in person at some point in the future. Sullivan mentioned issues such as forced labor which were brought up during the G-7. Still, he did not make a firm promise on when or how a Biden-Xi discussion might take place and did not mention the investigation of COVID-19 origins.

Biden has often pointed to his relationship with Xi when discussing China, including repeatedly and falsely claiming to have traveled 17,000 miles with the Chinese leader.

During a joint press conference between now-President Xi and then-Vice President Biden in Beijing in December 2013, Xi said, “Honorable Vice President Biden, let me again warmly welcome you to China, my old friend … You have long been committed to the growth of China-U.S. relations, and I commend you for the large amount of work you have taken. And I hope your current visit will help us to further deepen mutual trust, exchanges, and cooperation between China and the United States.”

Biden also said the two were friends, saying, “Mr. President, thank you very much. And I say to your colleagues, I hope you don't think that I trespassed on taking advantage of my friendship with the president to keep him as long as I did in the other room. But I thank you very much, Mr. President, for the opportunity to meet with you again.”

When Xi visited the White House in 2015, he said at a luncheon co-hosted by Biden and then-Secretary of State John Kerry that he was friends with both men, saying, “To me, Vice President Biden is an old friend, and we have interacted with each other so much, and we visited each other’s countries, and we spent more than ten hours together exchanging views. And Secretary Kerry is also our old friend, and I have also seen many familiar faces in this room, friends who have made direct contribution to the growth of China-U.S. relations … It is such a delight to see old friends again.”

Biden said at the same 2015 event, “More than four years ago, President Obama and … President Hu decided that then-Vice President Xi and I should get to know one another. And so we did exactly that. I had the opportunity of traveling from Beijing to Chengdu and every other place in between with the hospitality of the president. We had more hours of dinners alone than I think he ever anticipated, and then I had the honor of hosting him here in the United States in Washington and Los Angeles … And I came away — and I told the president this after our multiple meetings — that I came away impressed with the president’s candor, determination, and his capacity.”

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in March the lab leak hypothesis still needed further study. This weekend's G-7 summit’s communique called for the WHO to set up a follow-up investigation into COVID-19’s origins in China.

During a brief April press conference, Biden said that he had not yet confronted Xi directly about allegations that China misled the world at the start of the pandemic.

Biden and Xi spoke by phone on Feb. 10 to discuss a range of items such as Biden’s “fundamental concerns” related to Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong and human rights abuses in Xinjiang as well as “exchanged views on countering the COVID-19 pandemic” — but not the allegations that China prevented investigations or covered up the origins of the pandemic, according to a White House readout of the call.





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