Of all the issues that have troubled relations between China and the West since the onset of the pandemic, none have been more noticeable in Beijing than questions about the origin of COVID-19.

Last year, China responded to an initial request from U.S. ally Australia for an independent investigation into the origin of the virus with tariffs on exports of its barley and wheat. wine. Since then, Beijing has repeatedly criticized calls for more transparency as being politically motivated, and sought to deflect suggestions it emanated from a Wuhan lab with alternative theories of origin ranging from the transmission via imports of frozen foods to a release of US bio-facilities.

This made the re-launch of the laboratory theory by US President Joe Biden last week – giving intelligence agencies 90 days to move closer to a definitive conclusion on the origin of the coronavirus – all the more significant. The order came as political pressure mounted following a series of reports suggesting the theory, which was widely supported by Trump administration officials, had been prematurely ignored. Even Facebook Inc. has said it will stop removing posts claiming COVID-19 is man-made or fabricated.

The origin probe comes at a sensitive time in US-China relations, with both governments showing signs that they want to move beyond the vitriolic that marked the last year of Donald Trump’s presidency. While Biden kept Trump’s tariffs and sanctions against Beijing in place, his administration also began to open a dialogue: Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen had her first call with Deputy Prime Minister Liu He on Tuesday night in Washington , following her conversation last week with US Trade Representative Katherine Tai.

But the results of the lab leak investigation could tie Xi Jinping’s hands, especially if it happens just before he gets a chance to meet Biden at the Group of 20 summit in October. As Xi realizes that China’s aggressive response has hurt his position abroad – this week he urged authorities to create a “trustworthy, kind and respectable” image for the country – the Party Chinese Communist has no choice but to vigorously resist any suggestion that it has mismanaged or covered up. a virus that effectively shut down the world.

“The question of the origin of the virus is deeply linked to the legitimacy of the CCP, so I don’t expect China to become more transparent – it will fight it relentlessly,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia program. to Germany. Marshall Fund of the United States, a Washington-based policy research group.

“That said, China is unlikely to use the forms of economic coercion against the United States that it uses against Australia, in part because it fears US retaliation in the form of further restrictions on the high. technology, ”she added. “He also fears the downward spiral of US-China relations to dangerous levels.”

Since the early days of the pandemic, some U.S. intelligence officials have suggested that SARS-CoV-2 – the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 – may have accidentally or deliberately leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology. Researchers at a high-tech lab have studied other coronaviruses, some isolated from bats.

A World Health Organization report with China earlier this year called the possibility of a laboratory leak “extremely unlikely” because no such virus was studied there before the outbreak and security protocols do not appear to have been violated. The report, compiled with local researchers after Beijing finally allowed a group of WHO experts to enter Wuhan, said the most likely original scenario was for the virus to spread to humans through from bats via an unspecified intermediate animal.

Still, the White House criticized the report as incomplete, while WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said it was not “comprehensive enough” and that the laboratory leak theory required further investigation. further investigation. Other prominent Western scientists have insisted that hypotheses about natural and laboratory fallout be taken seriously until there is enough data to say otherwise.

While Biden’s decision to publicly announce the virus investigation seemed “purely political”, Tedros’ criticism of the WHO report is harder for China to dismiss “and it drives them mad,” according to Christopher Johnson, former senior China analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency. who is now a Principal Investigator at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Either way, he added, China is unlikely to allow further access that would further shed light on origin.

“Finding a smoking gun on it would be next to impossible, so the only way to defuse it is to actually talk to each other,” Johnson said. “Without it, the potential to further ignite the relationship is there.”

Chinese diplomats and senior officials from the Wuhan lab have repeatedly denied that the facility was the source of the coronavirus. Responding to the Biden inquiry, Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian last week highlighted the WHO’s findings while questioning why US intelligence agencies were getting involved.

“How can we trust the conclusions of an” investigation “carried out by such an intelligence body without any credibility to speak of? he said on May 27.

Zhao also pointed out that Fort Detrick, Maryland, was “surrounded by suspicion,” a base that houses the US biodefense agency. It was a repeat of a theory Zhao long put forward that the virus could have originated in the United States.

Chinese officials have focused on research showing evidence of coronavirus infections outside of China in late 2019 and highlighted frozen food imports as a possible vector – all as part of efforts to put doubt the virus originated in or around Wuhan, the city in central China that saw the first known case of COVID-19.

Biden’s intelligence directive now ensures that the discussion will continue for at least the next few months, and US-China relations could worsen if the investigation ends up fingering Chinese officials, according to Hugo Brennan, analyst at the firm of China. Verisk Maplecroft risk consulting.

“If the US intelligence community concludes that the ‘Wuhan lab leak’ theory is the most likely cause of the pandemic, it will see US-China relations drop to new lows,” he said. declared. “Especially if the consensus is that Beijing has deliberately tried to cover up the leak. “

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