Donald Trump renewed his criticism of China at the UN general assembly on Tuesday, calling on its members to hold Beijing responsible for the coronavirus pandemic.
Mr Trump, giving his remarks by video, claimed the US was engaged in a “great global struggle” to end what he disparagingly termed “the China virus”. Nearly 200,000 people in the US have died, and 6.8m infections have been registered to date — more than a fifth of global cases, even though the US comprises only 4 per cent of the world’s population.
“We must hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague on to the world: China,” Mr Trump told the assembly, one of several international organisations where Beijing has sought to increase its influence in recent years.
Xi Jinping, China’s president, rejected Mr Trump’s claims in his own pre-recorded speech to the UN general assembly later on Tuesday.
“Any attempt of politicising the issue or stigmatisation must be rejected,” he said, adding Beijing had no intention of fighting “either a cold war or a hot one with any country” amid growing tensions between the US and China.
Latest coronavirus news
Follow FT's live coverage and analysis of the global pandemic and the rapidly evolving economic crisis here.
He said the world needed to enhance solidarity and “get through this together”, lending support to the World Health Organization — a UN body from which the US has withdrawn at Mr Trump’s behest, claiming it is biased towards China.
UN secretary-general António Guterres told the heads of state that everything must be done to avoid a new cold war, warning: “We are moving in a very dangerous direction.”
In his seven-minute address, Mr Trump hewed to subjects more familiar to a domestic political stump speech. “Only when you take care of your own citizens will you find a true basis for co-operation,” he said, before repeating a central mantra of his presidency: “I am proudly putting America first.”
Richard Gowan, UN director at the International Crisis Group, said Mr Trump’s “exceedingly short” speech was substantively thin and less disruptive than many diplomats feared.
“UN officials and diplomats had been nervous that Trump would use this opportunity to attack the UN and multilateralism, but he largely concentrated on China.”
Mr Gowan characterised Mr Trump’s UN appearance as an “afterthought”, saying the president was instead saving himself for a different “big political target” later this week. Mr Trump intends to nominate a Supreme Court justice on Saturday in the wake of the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a liberal justice who died on Friday.
Mr Trump said in his speech his administration was advancing religious liberty and “protecting unborn children” — a reference to his administration’s stance against abortions, which could receive a fillip if he pushes through a religious conservative at the Supreme Court. He said his administration had made advances in the decriminalisation of homosexuality, which he also referenced in his address last year.
Rather than emphasise his administration’s hardline policy on Iran, as his effort to unilaterally reimpose a UN arms embargo has left Washington globally isolated, Mr Trump instead framed himself as a peacemaker in the Middle East.
Claiming credit for a new dawn of peace in the region, he said the US would deliver “more peace agreements shortly”, after securing diplomatic recognition for Israel from the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, in talks brokered by the White House.
Get alerts on US foreign policy when a new story is published