President Trump assailed China as the coronavirus villain Tuesday in a strongly worded United Nations speech, extolling his own actions in the pandemic and demanding that the global organization hold accountable “the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world.”
Mr. Trump’s speech — made via prerecorded video to a General Assembly that was drastically curtailed because of the pandemic — was followed by a recorded speech from President Xi Jinping of China, who called the coronavirus a crisis shared by everyone. Offering no hint of contrition, Mr. Xi portrayed his nation of 1.4 billion people as having acted responsibly to combat Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus.
“Any attempt of politicizing the issue or stigmatization must be rejected,” Mr. Xi said.
Taken together, the speeches by the American and Chinese presidents, broadcast from the world’s biggest diplomatic forum, punctuated the growing schism between the two superpowers during Mr. Trump’s first term, which has raised alarms about a new cold war.
“Each of these leaders sees flexibility as weakness, and the ability to make concessions is the essence of diplomacy,” said Orville Schell, director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society. “So they’re at continued loggerheads. It’s a very alarming downward spiral.”
That such a standoff would be on public display at the United Nations, Mr. Schell said, “makes the U.N. more or less irrelevant, and that’s alarming too — we’ve fallen out of the framework of engagement, where we had some ways to mediate our differences.”
With just weeks before the presidential election, Mr. Trump also used his speech to highlight what he sees as his foreign-policy achievements: isolating Iran, moving to withdraw forces from Afghanistan and orchestrating normalized ties between Israel and two Gulf Arab countries. But his attempt to shift the blame to China for the coronavirus pandemic — and away from what critics call his own inept response — was a dominant theme in the speech.
“We have waged a fierce battle against the invisible enemy — the China virus,” Mr. Trump said. He spoke of American advances in lifesaving treatments, predicted success in finalizing and distributing vaccines and asserted: “We will end the pandemic, and we will enter a new era of unprecedented prosperity, cooperation and peace.”
Mr. Trump did not mention that the United States has far more confirmed cases than any other country, nearly seven million, and far more deaths, over 200,000.
He reiterated his contention that the Chinese deliberately hid what they knew about the virus after it had been first detected in the central city of Wuhan last year, allowing it to spread. He also repeated his accusation that the World Health Organization, an arm of the United Nations, is controlled by Beijing and abetted its early inaction, which China and the W.H.O. have denied. Mr. Trump has withdrawn the United States from the W.H.O., a move that comes into effect in July of next year.
“The United Nations must hold China accountable for their actions,” he said.
Mr. Xi, by contrast, described China as a benevolent power that does not wish ill on anyone, without mentioning China’s expansionist behavior in the South China Sea, mass detentions in Xinjiang, political repression in Hong Kong and warnings to Taiwan, the self-governing island that China’s ruling Communist Party regards as Chinese territory.
“Covid-19 reminds us that we are living in an interconnected global village with a common stake,” Mr. Xi said. “No country can gain from others’ difficulties or maintain stability by taking advantage of others’ troubles.”
In a swipe at Mr. Trump’s go-it-alone approach to international diplomacy and trade, Mr. Xi said: “Burying one’s head in the sand like an ostrich in the face of economic globalization or trying to fight it with Don Quixote’s lance goes against the trend of history.”
The U.S.-China divide quickly emerged as a dominant theme at this year’s General Assembly session, which itself is a victim of the coronavirus pandemic. For the first time in the 75-year history of the United Nations, no leader attended the session this year; they sent their speeches via prerecorded video instead.
The delegation of each of the 193 member states was limited to one or two people, spaced far apart and wearing masks in the General Assembly hall, which normally would be teeming with dignitaries. Most of the side meetings, unofficial person-to-person diplomacy and spontaneity that ordinarily color such events are not happening this year.
The contrived feel of this year’s meeting has come against a backdrop of cascading crises of regional conflict, climate change, widening poverty and hunger, all amplified by the coronavirus, exposing what critics have called chronic weaknesses in the United Nations.
Despite the best intentions of Secretary General António Guterres, the organization’s basic inability to orchestrate an effective, global response to the pandemic has been on full display for months. His call for a cease-fire in the wars that have ravaged Yemen, Syria and Libya, first made in March, has gone largely unheeded, and in his own speech on Tuesday he expressed hope for one by year’s end.
“Our world is struggling, stressed and seeking real leadership and action,” Mr. Guterres said. “We face a foundational moment. Those who built the United Nations 75 years ago had lived through a pandemic, a global depression, genocide and world war. They knew the cost of discord and the value of unity.”
Now, he said, “we face our own 1945 moment.”
Mr. Guterres also seemed especially mindful of threats to the United Nations posed by the rift between the United States and China, the two biggest funders of the organization.
“We are moving in a very dangerous direction,” he said. “Our world cannot afford a future where the two largest economies split the globe in a Great Fracture — each with its own trade and financial rules and internet and artificial intelligence capacities.”
Such a divide, he said, “risks inevitably turning into a geostrategic and military divide. We must avoid this at all costs.”