Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen, center, walks ahead of Vice-President Lai Ching-te, left of her, as they attend the inauguration ceremony in Taipei on Wednesday. Tsai was inaugurated for a second term amid increasing pressure from China on the self-governing island democracy it claims as its own territory. Taiwan Presidential Office via AP

SEOUL, South Korea — The inauguration of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s second term was overshadowed Wednesday by a war of words between Beijing and Washington, underscoring how the U.S.-aligned island has become a growing focus of the rivalry between the world powers.

Rising tensions between the United States and China brought fresh mudslinging Wednesday as a sharp dispute over responsibility for the novel coronavirus pandemic spills into new forums such as Taiwan.

In the span of several hours, the feud seesawed from Taipei to Beijing to the Internet, where an animated “credibility test” on Chinese state TV’s Twitter feed mocked Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

President Trump then lashed out at China for a “worldwide killing” from COVID-19 – part of messages that could become talking points in the presidential election campaign.

The White House salvos have sought to keep a focus on China’s early response to the virus and what Trump has called a “China-centric” deference at the World Health Organization. China, in turn, has portrayed itself as a good global citizen willing to work with the United Nations and other countries to defeat the pandemic.

But the longer-range Trump strategy appeared aimed at deflecting attention over the U.S. handling of the pandemic – including the sometimes conflicting messages from the Trump administration and health experts and a reported COVID-19 death toll that is the highest in the world.


Part of Trump’s criticism has grounding, particularly China’s silencing of doctors and its denial that the virus was spreading person-to-person after it emerged late last year in Wuhan. But Trump’s claims – outlined in a four-page letter to the WHO on Monday – mix legitimate criticism with broad inaccuracies such as the timeline of Chinese and WHO actions.

He also skims over the fact that he praised China and the WHO for months.

Still, Trump appears to be shaping his re-election campaign as it goes – using language that echoes his populist anti-China rhetoric during the 2016 run.

“The pandemic has shown once again the vital importance of economic independence and bringing supply chains back from China and other countries,” Trump said Tuesday, drawing connections between the pandemic – which Trump called “the plague” – and the global economic free fall.


Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during a press briefing Wednesday at the State Department in Washington. Nicholas Kamm/pool photo via AP

Pompeo opened a news conference Wednesday with a long list of complaints about China, saying focus on the pandemic is obscuring what he called the larger picture of risk posed to the United States by the Chinese Communist Party.

“We greatly underestimated the degree to which Beijing is ideologically and politically hostile to free nations,” he told reporters. “The whole world is waking up to that fact.”


Beijing, however, is answering with its own swift counterpunches.

On Tuesday – after Trump issued a 30-day ultimatum to the WHO to make unspecified reforms – Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, described Trump’s letter as an effort to “to mislead the public, smear China’s efforts and shift the blame of U.S. incompetence to others.”

It’s another indication of how fast the former diplomatic guardrails have fallen.

In Taiwan – for decades one of the most sensitive issues between Washington and Beijing – the start of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen’s second term on Wednesday was overshadowed by the war of words.

China issued angry warnings after senior U.S. officials, including Pompeo and deputy national security adviser Matt Pottinger, sent rare, high-level messages to congratulate Tsai. China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and has threatened to absorb the island by force, if necessary.

China’s Defense Ministry said Pompeo’s message “seriously endangered relations between the two countries and two militaries and seriously damaged peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait.”


The People’s Liberation Army, it added, has a “firm will, full confidence, and sufficient capacity to frustrate any form of external interference and Taiwan independence plots.”

In recent weeks, the Chinese military has sent warplanes and an aircraft carrier into the strait, and U.S. forces have been conducting large-scale flight and surveillance operations off China’s southern coast.

This month, commentators in China have hotly debated the need to expand China’s nuclear and ballistic missile arsenal after the State Department published a paper arguing for fitting low-yield nuclear warheads onto submarine-launched missiles.

In her inauguration speech, Tsai said that she wanted to coexist peacefully with China but that she would not accept Beijing’s offer of a political framework that would bring Taiwan into the fold on the condition of semiautonomy.

“We will not accept the Beijing authorities’ use of ‘one country, two systems’ to downgrade Taiwan and undermine the cross-strait status quo,” said Tsai, who swept into another term with a 75 percent approval rating.

In response, the Communist Party-run Global Times newspaper said “Pompeo is clearly doing it to challenge Beijing.”


As the rhetoric intensifies on both sides, Pompeo has become the scapegoat of choice for Beijing officials and state media.

He has been called by an “enemy of humankind” and a “super-spreader” of a “political virus.” Most of the ire is focused on the Trump administration’s references to unsupported theories that the virus could have come from a Wuhan laboratory.

China took another swipe at Pompeo with an animated clip produced by a wing of Chinese state TV. The video, titled “Pompeo’s credibility test,” appeared on the Twitter feed of Chinese state TV, challenging Pompeo’s views on China’s role in fighting the pandemic.

Hours later, Trump tweeted that “some wacko in China just released a statement blaming everybody other than China” for the virus – a possible reference to the Pompeo video, but the president did not elaborate.

“Please explain to this dope that it was the ‘incompetence of China,’ and nothing else, that did this mass Worldwide killing!” Trump continued.

It’s a theme that the White House is increasingly pushing.


On Sunday, White House trade adviser Peter Navarro told ABC News that China was responsible for allowing the coronavirus to “seed” around the world by not stopping infected passengers from traveling in the early weeks of the outbreak.

The escalating attacks on both sides reflect significant changes.

Trump has often referred to Chinese President Xi Jinping as a “friend” and, in the past, repeatedly praised China’s response to the outbreak.

For China, it shows an evolution in its propaganda priorities. Over the past decade, Beijing has taken halting steps to upgrade its spin operations for the digital age, rolling out English-language animated cartoons and pro-China rap songs online, sometimes with the help of Western consultancies.

The trade war with the United States pushed these Western-looking propaganda efforts out of beta testing.

Beijing has tasked ambassadors and other officials with setting up Twitter and Facebook accounts for the first time to spar in real time with the Trump administration, despite the platforms being blocked for viewing inside China.

The escalating friction is a “perfect storm” of several factors, said Sheena Greitens, assistant professor of political science at the University of Missouri, with “tough-on-China” campaigning ahead of the election and the global pandemic laying bare some of the transparency problems in China’s government.

“Regardless, one lesson for the future is that American strategy and national security shouldn’t depend on or assume transparency from China,” she said, “because it’s not an empirically valid assumption to make given the nature and structure of China’s domestic politics.”

The Washington Post’s Emily Rauhala in Washington contributed to this report.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: