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U.S. President Donald Trump, seen here on May 07, 2020, laced into Beijing for failing to contain COVID-19, saying, 'This is really the worst attack we’ve ever had. This is worse than Pearl Harbor. This is worse than the World Trade Center.'

Doug Mills/Getty Images

U.S. President Donald Trump is threatening economic retaliation against China over its handling of COVID-19, tying the pandemic into his long-running trade war in an escalating clash between the world’s superpowers.

The President and some of his officials are also promoting a theory that the virus originated in a Chinese lab, despite producing no evidence of this.

The rising tensions could further unbalance a global economy already battered by the novel coronavirus outbreak. And they are raising fears that Mr. Trump is making it harder to hold China accountable for covering up COVID-19 by connecting criticisms of Beijing with his tariff war, political agenda and fringe theories.

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The President has threatened to “terminate” the Phase 1 trade agreement he reached with Beijing in January. Under that deal, Beijing agreed to increase purchases of U.S. goods in exchange for Mr. Trump cutting some tariffs on Chinese products.

“If they don’t buy, we’ll terminate the deal. Very simple,” Mr. Trump told a Fox News virtual townhall last weekend. On Wednesday at the White House, the President said he would decide by the end of next week whether to tear up the agreement. And he laced into Beijing for failing to contain COVID-19.

“This is really the worst attack we’ve ever had. This is worse than Pearl Harbor. This is worse than the World Trade Center,” he said. “It should have never happened. It could have been stopped at the source. It could have been stopped in China.”

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced this week that he will delay a report to Congress on China’s treatment of Hong Kong, a possible prelude to Washington slapping sanctions on Beijing over its treatment of pro-democracy protesters in the territory.

Mr. Pompeo has also embraced the theory that the new coronavirus originated at the Wuhan Institute of Virology and not at a live animal market in the city, as commonly thought. Last weekend, Mr. Pompeo told ABC there was “enormous evidence” the virus came from the lab. When Mr. Trump was asked whether he had seen anything to indicate this, he said “yes, I have."

But at a combative State Department news conference this week, Mr. Pompeo refused to say what the evidence was, and instead berated reporters for asking.

“Your efforts to try and find, just, to spend your whole life trying to drive a little wedge between senior American officials, it’s just, it’s just, it’s just, it’s just false,” he said.

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China promptly fired back.

“The reason Pompeo can’t justify his own words is because he has been making things up this whole time, using one lie to cover over another,” Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for the Chinese foreign ministry said Thursday. “It’s no secret.”

Chinese officials tried to hide the emergence of COVID-19 late last year, including by arresting doctors who alerted the public to the epidemic. China eventually admitted to the outbreak in January. It took the United States until March to implement physical distancing measures and start ramping up testing. For weeks in between, Mr. Trump publicly insisted COVID-19 was not a serious threat and even lauded China’s “efforts and transparency” at fighting the virus.

“China did something wrong, but that’s not the reason we’re in the condition that we are,” said Mary Gallagher, director of the Center for Chinese Studies at the University of Michigan. “It’s too bad China covering up the virus is being conflated with the reasons the U.S. was unprepared.”

Ironically, said some analysts, Mr. Trump is actually making it harder to check China’s power or hold Beijing accountable because his approach pushes U.S. allies away.

“He’s undermining the potential for an effort with like-minded countries to work together on critical areas, denying China access to advanced military technology,” said Bonnie Glaser, an expert on China at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank in Washington. “Other countries find it hard to align themselves with the Trump administration because he’s conflating this with the theory that the virus was made in a lab, which nobody believes.”

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The President first started a tariff war with China more than two years ago in a bid to push down the U.S. trade deficit with Beijing. Most economists contend that deficit – how much less the U.S. exports to China than it imports – does not matter in assessing the health of the U.S. economy.

China analyst Derek Scissors said Mr. Trump’s singular obsession with the trade war has caused him to miss other more urgent and effective measures, such as moving supply chains for medical supplies and personal protective equipment out of China.

“The President doesn’t want to take meaningful action outside of tariffs. He doesn’t care about anything in regards to China other than the trade balance,” said Mr. Scissors, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank. “If the outbreak resurges in December and people are dying in the United States because China’s not sending us supplies, that’s criminal. It’s crazy the U.S. government hasn’t done anything.”

With a report from Nathan VanderKlippe in Beijing

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