WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. State Department summoned the Chinese ambassador to the United States on Friday to protest against comments by Beijing suggesting the U.S. military might have brought the coronavirus to Wuhan, as tensions between the two global powers over the outbreak intensified.
David Stillwell, the top U.S. diplomat for East Asia, delivered a very “stern representation” to China’s ambassador Cui Tiankai, a State Department official said, adding that Beijing’s envoy was “very defensive.”
The State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said China was seeking to deflect criticism of its role in “starting a global pandemic and not telling the world.”
“Spreading conspiracy theories is dangerous and ridiculous. We wanted to put the government on notice we won’t tolerate it for the good of the Chinese people and the world.”
Defense Department Spokeswoman Alyssa Farah wrote on Twitter on Friday that “the Communist Party of China has chosen to promulgate false & absurd conspiracy theories about the origin of COVID-19 blaming U.S. service members. #ChinaPropaganda”
The virus, also called COVID-19, has infected 138,000 people worldwide and killed more than 5,000.
China’s embassy did not respond to requests for comment.
Despite the signs of tension, U.S. President Donald Trump praised Beijing on Friday for its “data sharing”.
Asked by a reporter during a White House news conference about “odd narratives” being offered by some Chinese officials, Trump appeared to brush off any concern, saying he had read one article on the subject, but that he did not think it was representative of his discussions with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Trump, who in a national address this week called the outbreak a “foreign virus” that started in China, added: “They know where it came from, we all know where it came from.”
Tensions escalated after Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian took to Twitter on Thursday.
“When did patient zero begin in US? How many people are infected? What are the names of the hospitals? It might be US army who brought the epidemic to Wuhan. Be transparent! Make public your data! US owe us an explanation!” Zhao tweeted in English.
The episode is the latest in an increasing war of words between Washington and Beijing, whose already strained ties over issues including trade, intellectual property rights and press freedom have further been tested by the virus outbreak.
The coronavirus, which emerged in China in December, has spread around the world, pummeling financial markets, halting industry, bringing some flights to a standstill, closing schools and forcing the postponement of sports events and concerts.
Zhao’s comments came days after Robert O’Brien, the U.S. national security adviser, said China had reacted slowly to the coronavirus, probably costing the world two months when it could have been preparing.
Wuhan was ground zero for the outbreak, which the World Health Organization this week labeled a pandemic. It has infected more than 127,000 people worldwide, including nearly 81,000 in mainland China, and killed more than 5,000 people.
Beijing was criticized for initially attempting to censor some Chinese doctors who sounded an alarm over the virus. Since January, it has imposed draconian containment measures, effectively locking down Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province, home to 60 million people.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has complained that the U.S. response had been hindered by what he called imperfect data from Beijing.
He and several other U.S. politicians have angered Beijing by referring to the “Wuhan virus.” In a national address on Wednesday, Trump called the outbreak a “foreign virus” that started in China.
Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and David Brunnstrom, Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Idrees Ali; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien and Daniel Wallis