China hawks flex muscle amid coronavirus fallout

The fallout from the coronavirus is shaking up the U.S.-China relationship on Capitol Hill, as a group of hawkish lawmakers fiercely criticize Beijing’s response to the disease.

Republicans are pushing for their colleagues and the Trump administration to take a more aggressive stance toward Beijing, which they say downplayed the virus’s danger.

China’s government has become a target for criticism for Republicans, along with the World Health Organization (WHO). President Trump on Tuesday said he would halt funding to that organization.

“We have seen them, along with the WHO, hide the coronavirus, not tell us the full story, not give us the full scope of the problem in China, and that has led to a hugely deleterious outcome,” Rep. Trey Hollingsworth (R-Ind.) said Tuesday in an interview with WIBC, an Indiana radio station.

Asked if China has to “pay” for the fallout, he added: “You find out who is responsible for that and you go after who is responsible. … We have been really harmed by China’s negligence.”

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) in a tweet on Tuesday wrote, “Communist China has lied to the world about COVID-19 since day one and is now responsible for over 100,000 deaths.”

GOP lawmakers are calling for a myriad of responses ranging from legislation that would penalize China, promises of their own investigations and questions about future U.S. support for the WHO, which has drawn scrutiny for its response to the virus and whether or not it was too acquiescent to Beijing.

Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) — who has been skeptical of China on many fronts — introduced legislation Tuesday that would strip China of its sovereign immunity and allow it to be sued for “any reckless action it took that caused the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, such as its decisions to withhold information and to gag doctors.”

“The CCP unleashed this pandemic. They must be held accountable to their victims,” Hawley said in a statement.

Hawley, Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a longtime defense hawk, and a group of GOP House lawmakers have also introduced sanctions legislation that would target any foreign official who suppressed or distorted information about a public health crisis.

And Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) introduced his own sanctions legislation Tuesday targeting Chinese officials who “prohibit, limit, or penalize” Chinese citizens for discussing the coronavirus, including on social media; or those who penalize Chinese citizens for disseminating accurate information about the virus, or limits access to print, broadcast, digital or social media.

“When Congress returns, introducing this legislation is just one of the necessary steps I will take to hold the Chinese officials involved in covering up the coronavirus outbreak accountable,” Cruz said in a statement.

Lawmakers are pushing for actions beyond just legislation. For example, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a foreign policy hawk who is a close ally of Trump’s, has floated suspending debt payments to China. Sen. Steve Daines (R-Mont.) has called on the State Department to investigate China’s role in the response to the pandemic.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), the chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), a member of the panel, are also investigating the U.S. and international response to the virus, including a focus on China and the role of the WHO.

They joined with five other Republican senators Tuesday to send a letter to Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the head of the WHO, requesting details on its response ahead of a congressional hearing on “helping the Chinese Communist Party cover up information regarding the threat of the Coronavirus.”

“American taxpayers fund the WHO, and it is up to us to make sure those taxpayer dollars are being spent wisely,” they added.

Some Republicans have referred to the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” or the “Wuhan virus,” descriptions critics say are racist. They’ve also sought to use China as a political weapon against Democrats amid the coronavirus pandemic. The National Republican Congressional Committee, for example, accused Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) of “unwittingly spewing” Chinese propaganda or being a “Chinese asset.”

Some critics have said the attacks appear aimed in part at deflecting blame from Trump, who at various points earlier this year said the coronavirus was under control and would “miraculously” go away when the weather warmed in April.

But people in both parties have questioned whether China concealed information about the initial COVID-19 outbreak and failed to tell the world of its seriousness. Officials in China denied in January that it could be transmitted between humans.

Asked about potential actions the administration would take, Trump demurred during a White House press conference Monday, telling reporters they would “find out.”

“We have a relationship with China that — we’re not happy with certain things that happened over the last period of time, as you know, and I’ve been very explicit on that,” Trump said.

Reducing U.S. dependence on China for key medicines and supplies is an area that could draw bipartisan support.

A bill from Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) that advocates for the U.S. to reprioritize its productive capability in order to achieve less supply chain dependence on China has garnered support from three Democratic senators, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.).

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who supports Rubio’s bill, said he would back “good faith efforts” to understand the origin of the virus but questioned the GOP motives.

“Right now, there is a very coordinated effort amongst the White House and their allies to try to find scapegoats for the fatal mistakes that the president made during the early stages of this virus,” Murphy told reporters during a Tuesday conference call.

“It is just widely ironic that the president and his allies are now criticizing China or the WHO for being soft on China, when it was in fact the president who was the chief apologist for China during the early stages of this crisis,” he added. “The mistakes that China and the WHO made did not mean that it was inevitable that the United States faced tens of thousands of deaths.”

Tags China Chris Murphy Coronavirus Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Josh Hawley Lindsey Graham Marco Rubio Marsha Blackburn Ron Johnson Sean Casten Steve Daines Ted Cruz Tom Cotton Trey Hollingsworth United States

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