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'We could have contained this': GOP hawks want to punish China for coronavirus

Ben Werschkul
DC Producer

During a recent Yahoo Finance interview, one of the top Republicans in Washington had blunt words for China’s role in the coronavirus crisis.

“Had China been honest and open with us, 95% of what is happening in the world today would not be happening,” said House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. He added, “We could have contained this inside China itself.”

Many of his colleagues agree and are proposing forceful measures to strike back at China in the months ahead for its perceived misdeeds related to coronavirus, which originated in Wuhan, China. Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri wants Beijing to literally “pay back all nations impacted because China lied about the spread of the virus.” Other proposed ideas include having China forgive U.S. debt and a bill to sanction foreign officials who give false information.

Leader McCarthy didn’t comment directly on making China pay. But his comments point to a question likely to heat up in Washington in the weeks ahead about what to do to punish the China as it begins to slowly re-open its economy, and Trump administration officials begin to discuss re-starting the U.S. economy in May.

Reporters practice social distancing at House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) weekly news conference on March 26. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

It’s a debate that intersects with the entirety of the U.S. relationship with China, including the recently signed trade deal and deeply linked supply chains for everything from consumer goods to medical equipment.

There are plenty of Democratic critics of China. For example, Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer has discussed China’s “failure to quickly and transparently combat the coronavirus.” But the key debate is playing out among a hawkish wing of the Republican party and the White House.

From Trump, both a ‘Chinese Virus’ and ‘Much Respect!’

For his part, President Donald Trump has offered a range of thoughts on China, including praising the country and its leader, Xi Jinping. In January, he lauded China’s “transparency.”

And at the end of the March, he offered, “Much respect!” to China.

But in between, the president also often took to calling the novel coronavirus the “Chinese Virus” and repeatedly touted his decision to ban travel between the U.S. and China early in the crisis.

A close up of President Trump's notes shows "Corona" crossed out and replaced with "Chinese" on March 19. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

“One of the most important things, when you write the history of this, was the fact that we closed it down to China and Europe, but in particular, China,” Trump said on March 17.

Trump has declined to blame China outright for the coronavirus, but he has expressed unhappiness over how China has communicated about it. “It would have been much better if we had known about this a number of months earlier,” he said on March 19. “It could have been contained to that one area in China where it started and certainly, the world is paying a big price for what they did.”

In the meantime, Trump has also brought up trade issues and his desire to continue good relations on that front. Trump has noted repeatedly that — even amid the coronavirus crisis — China has kept up its purchases of agriculture products as part of the recently signed deal.

“Now we're going into a phase two negotiation with China,” he said on March 26. He’s pushed back on reports that he might lift tariffs in order to stimulate the economy.

And on February 29, he said his relationship with China is very good and “maybe it's closer because of what's happened here, because, in a certain way, this can bring the world closer.”

What form of punishment China may take (if any)

During his coronavirus briefing on March 18, Trump sidestepped a question about whether China should be directly punished.  We'll “see what happens,” he said in response to that query. There are also plenty of questions as to whether China would ever comply with international efforts to punish it economically.

Meanwhile, two indirect avenues are gaining traction in Washington.

The first effort is to use the ongoing coronavirus response to sever supply chain lines with China. Lawmakers are reportedly very interested in using a “phase 4” deal to shift supply lines — at least for medical equipment — away from China.

Trump has publicly supported that idea. “We want to make certain things at home,” he said on March 2. “The coronavirus shows the importance of bringing all of that manufacturing back to America.”

Another effort in the House for the next phase of the deal is to bar money from the various recovery bills from being given to Chinese government-linked businesses.

A second approach gaining steam is to punish China via the World Health Organization. Hill Republicans and the president have been critical of the WHO for weeks but have ramped up their rhetoric in recent days.

The WHO is a "specialized agency" of the United Nations that works with 194 Member States out of more than 150 offices to “to achieve better health for everyone, everywhere.”

On Capitol Hill, Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida has called for an investigation into the WHO, claiming it did not take a hard enough stance against Beijing.

WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has recently pushed back against the criticism. "Please don't politicize this virus,” he said at a news conference in Geneva.

Kevin McCarthy, during his Yahoo Finance interview, also called out the WHO for supposedly downplaying the crisis. Trump initially threatened to pull U.S. funding for the organization but has more recently said he is just looking at that as an option.

“They seem to err always on the side of China, and we fund it,” Trump recently said, suggesting that pulling WHO funding would indirectly punish the world's second largest economy. “I want to look into it.”

Ben Werschkul is a producer for Yahoo Finance in Washington, DC.

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