Hold China accountable for coronavirus, but don’t ‘scapegoat’ them: CFR president

China should be held accountable for its role in the coronavirus pandemic, but the United States must also take responsibility for the “debacle” of its response, according to Council on Foreign Relations President Richard Haass.

The COVID-19 crisis has opened a new fissure in Sino-American relations, and pressure is building in Washington to hold Beijing accountable for the spread of a virus that has now infected over 4 million worldwide and plunged the world into a deep recession. 

Just this week, South Carolina Senator Lindsay Graham and eight other Senate Republicans introduced the “COVID-19 Accountability Act.” Among other things, the bill grants President Donald Trump — who has lashed out at China with increasing regularity — the power to sanction the world’s second largest economy unless it complies with certain conditions within 60 days. 

Haass, a former foreign policy adviser to both Bush presidents, told Yahoo Finance in an interview on Wednesday that it was “perfectly fair and reasonable to be critical of China for how it handled the outbreak.”

He cited a litany of shortcomings such as the country’s failure to cooperate with international inquiries, and initially allowing travel from Wuhan, the origin of the novel coronavirus.

Even as the world struggles to contain soaring COVID-19 infections and deaths, The Wall Street Journal reported that Chinese officials appear to have stonewalled international efforts to isolate the virus’ origins.

“Even now, four months later, they’re still not doing everything we should. But we still can’t scapegoat them,” Haass said in a YFi PM interview. “China can’t be blamed for our lack of protective equipment…[or] the debacle that continues to be testing.”

“China can’t be blamed for inconsistent messaging and our undisciplined lack of social distancing. Our response has not been close to adequate,” Haass added.

Over 4 million people have been infected with the coronavirus around the world. (Graphic: David Foster/Yahoo Finance)

‘Raise the costs of destabilizing behavior’

Still, a multi-pronged pressure campaign is underway in Washington to raise the geopolitical stakes for Beijing, which even before the coronavirus outbreak had been exerting its global influence in ways that courted controversy with the West.

As sentiment between the two countries sour over the COVID-19 outbreak, new tensions have surfaced between the U.S. and China, which recently implemented a trade war cease-fire. In announcing his retaliatory legislation, Graham said he was “convinced China will never cooperate with a serious investigation” unless they were forced to cooperate.

“Though a measure like this would have been unthinkable in a previous era, there is a strong appetite in Congress to retaliate against China for the pandemic, and Congress is likely to act in some way this summer,” analysts at Eurasia Group said this week.

“Our initial response is that there would be little opposition to this measure, but, it is too early to say exactly what Congress will do,” the firm added. “This bill has several features that make it attractive to Congress and the administration as a middle ground between doing nothing and even more hawkish proposals.”

In the midst of what he called a “democratic recession,” Haass told Yahoo Finance that democratic governments in the West needed to challenge authoritarian counterparts in China, Russia and Iran.

“We’ve got to figure out ways of deterring them and to raise the costs of their destabilizing behavior,” he said. “We’ve got to find a way to push back either directly with military force [or] indirectly with sanction…or create a context in which diplomacy can achieve something.”

The global response to the coronavirus crisis “is actually going to place pressure on existing leadership, whether they’re democratic or authoritarian,” Haass said. “People are going to demand of their government that it delivers…anyone that fails those tests will meet opposition.”

Javier E. David is an editor focused on markets and the economy for Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter @TeflonGeek.

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