US President Donald Trump has told the United Nations General Assembly that China must be held accountable for having "unleashed" COVID-19 on the world, prompting Beijing to accuse him of "lies" and abusing the UN platform to provoke confrontation.
China's President Xi Jinping struck a conciliatory tone in his pre-recorded virtual address to the General Assembly, calling for enhanced cooperation over the pandemic and stressing that China had no intention of fighting "either a Cold War or a hot war with any country".
But China's UN ambassador Zhang Jun rejected Trump's accusations against China as "baseless" and said "lies repeated a thousand times are still lies".
Trump and Xi, leaders of the world's two largest economies, laid out competing visions on Tuesday (local time) at a time when relations have plunged to their worst level in decades, with coronavirus tensions aggravating trade and technology disputes.
Trump, facing a November re-election battle with the United States dealing with the world's highest official number of deaths and infections from the virus, focused his speech on attacking China, which is now ranked 43rd in the number of COVID-19 cases per country.
He accused Beijing of allowing people to leave China in the early stages of the outbreak to infect the world while shutting down domestic travel.
"We must hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world," Trump said in remarks taped on Monday (local time) and delivered remotely to the General Assembly due to the pandemic.
"The Chinese government, and the World Health Organisation - which is virtually controlled by China - falsely declared that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission," he said.
"Later, they falsely said people without symptoms would not spread the disease ... The United Nations must hold China accountable for their actions."
The president promised to distribute a vaccine and said: "We will defeat the virus, and we will end the pandemic."
Chinese president’s rebuke to Trump
Xi's address contained what appeared to be an implicit rebuke to Trump, calling for a global response to the coronavirus and a leading role for the WHO, which the US president has announced plans to leave.
"We should enhance solidarity and get through this together," he said.
"We should follow the guidance of science, give full play to the leading role of the World Health Organisation and launch a joint international response ... Any attempt of politicising the issue, or stigmatisation, must be rejected."
The WHO also rejected the remarks of President Trump, who previously said the health organisation was being a “puppet of China”.
"No one gov't controls us," its communications director, Gabby Stern tweeted.
"On Jan. 14 our #COVID19 technical lead told media of the potential for human-to-human transmission. Since February, our experts have publicly discussed transmission by people without symptoms or prior to symptoms."
US records highest number of coronavirus deaths
Russian President Vladimir Putin told the General Assembly the WHO should be strengthened to coordinate the global response to the pandemic and proposed a high-level conference on vaccine cooperation.
China has portrayed itself as the chief cheerleader for multilateralism at a time when Trump's disregard for international cooperation has led him to quit global deals on climate and Iran, as well as the UN Human Rights Council and the WHO.
The US coronavirus death toll officially surpassed 200,000 this week, by far the highest official number of any country.
Trump also attacked China's record on the environment, but levelled no direct criticism at Beijing over human rights.
Trump, a frequent critic of the UN, said that if it was to be effective, it must focus on "the real problems of the world" like "terrorism, the oppression of women, forced labour, drug trafficking, human and sex trafficking, religious persecution, and the ethnic cleansing of religious minorities”.
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