Trump Threatens to Permanently Cut Funding to World Health Organization

par Featured articles licensed from The Wall Street Journal | le 19 May 2020




The threat comes after China pledged $2 billion to the group to fight the coronavirus

By Andrew Restuccia, Gordon Lubold

and Drew Hinshaw – The Wall Street Journal

WASHINGTON—President Trump threatened to permanently cut off funding to the World Health Organization and revoke U.S. membership if the group doesn’t make changes meant to curb what he called its pro-China bias.

In a Monday letter to WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Mr. Trump said the organization has shown an “alarming lack of independence” from Beijing and failed to adequately respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is clear the repeated missteps by you and your organization in responding to the pandemic have been extremely costly for the world,” Mr. Trump wrote. “The only way forward for the World Health Organization is if it can actually demonstrate independence from China.”

Mr. Trump touted the letter on his Twitter account on Monday night. “It is self-explanatory!” he wrote. The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment seeking information on the changes Mr. Trump would like to see the WHO make.


The president had suspended contributions to the group in April pending an internal review of the WHO’s response to the pandemic. The four-page letter details the results of that review.

Noting that his administration has already discussed possible reforms with WHO officials, Mr. Trump gave the group 30 days to make “major substantive improvements” or he would cut funding and reconsider U.S. membership.

Mr. Trump alleged in the letter that the WHO ignored early reports of the virus spreading in Wuhan, failed to share information with other countries, made misleading claims and neglected to urge China to allow for an independent investigation into the origins of the virus.

The WHO didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Facing criticism for the U.S. response to the pandemic, Mr. Trump has increasingly blamed China and the WHO for not doing enough to prevent the virus from spreading around the world.

President Trump threatened to permanently cut funding for the WHO. Photo: Leah Millis / Reuters

Public-health experts have said the Trump administration didn’t adequately respond to the crisis in the early days of the U.S. outbreak, pointing to the failure to establish a robust testing system and to provide adequate protective equipment to hospitals around the country.

The president has defended the U.S. response.

As of Monday, more than 90,300 people had died in the U.S., according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

Chinese President Xi Jinping on Monday pledged $2 billion to the WHO, a United Nations agency, to fight the global pandemic at the World Health Assembly, the WHO’s annual summit and most important meeting.

The move was seen by foreign-policy experts as an effort to fill a global leadership void brought on by Mr. Trump’s moves against the WHO. White House officials said Mr. Xi’s pledge was a distraction for Beijing’s alleged failings to deal with the outbreak early on. White House officials also denied that the U.S. was retreating from a global leadership role.

The WHO has relied heavily on U.S. funding. In the two-year period ending at the close of 2019, the U.S. had contributed $893 million to the group, according to WHO records. The administration has previously said the U.S. provided $453 million to the WHO in fiscal year 2019.

China contributed just under $86 million during that period. In recent months, Beijing has increased its funding to the group as a result of the pandemic. Before pledging the additional $2 billion, China had announced a further $50 million in contributions.

Mr. Trump had initially considered maintaining partial funding for the group on par with what China has contributed. Over the weekend, he said his administration was weighing a proposal that would reduce overall U.S. funding to the group by 90%. But he backed away from that plan after receiving pushback from Republican lawmakers and conservative commentators, according to people familiar with the matter.

Dr. Tedros has denied that the WHO was too deferential to China and United Nations officials have warned that cutting off funding to the group during a pandemic could make it harder to respond to the crisis.

As Washington Pulls Back, Beijing Steps In

In his address Monday at the World Health Assembly, Mr. Xi praised the WHO and said other governments should increase their financial commitments to it.

All Monday afternoon, U.S. allies—including French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel—dialed in by videoconference, complained about a lack of international leadership and offered pointed criticism for those who aren’t supporting the WHO, though none specifically named the U.S.

Mr. Xi was the first major world leader to address the conference. He outlined a range of new Chinese commitments, including a “global humanitarian response depot and hub in China to ensure the operation of antiepidemic supply chains.” It will offer physicians and supplies to dozens of countries, especially in Africa, he added.

China will increase support for the Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, a pan-continental organization largely funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Mr. Xi also appeared to express uncertainty about the origins of the pandemic, saying: “We also need to continue supporting global research by scientists on the source and transmission routes of the virus.”

Beijing’s commitment of $2 billion to the WHO amounts to a diversionary tactic on the part of Beijing and in no way reflects an American retreat from its leadership responsibilities world-wide amid the pandemic, said John Ullyot, a spokesman for the National Security Council.

China’s pledge “is a token to distract from calls from a growing number of nations demanding accountability for the Chinese government’s failure to meet its obligations under International Health Regulations to tell the truth and warn the world of what was coming,” Mr. Ullyot said. “As the source of the outbreak, China has a special responsibility to pay more and to give more,” he said.

Mr. Ullyot denied that Mr. Trump’s freezing of funding to the WHO diminishes U.S. leadership in the effort to confront the new coronavirus, pointing out Washington’s own commitment of a total of $10.2 billion to the global response to the pandemic.

President Xi told the World Health Assembly virtual meeting Monday that governments should increase their financial commitments to the WHO.

Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar spoke five hours into the conference with a short speech accusing the WHO of allowing China to conceal the severity of the outbreak early on. “There was a failure by this organization to obtain the information the world needed and that failure cost many lives,” he said.

The World Health Assembly is where the WHO elects many of its leaders and sets its agenda for the coming year. The current meeting, held by videoconference on Monday and Tuesday, was almost exclusively focused on the new coronavirus and its impact.

The gathering was meant to allow the WHO and the 194 member states a venue to discuss public health questions. That includes how to coordinate the response to the pandemic and how to distribute medical supplies, including any eventual vaccine.

On Monday, the assembly served as a forum for Western leaders to voice frustrations that there has been too little global leadership on how to handle the pandemic. Mr. Macron and Ms. Merkel called for the world to support the WHO.

Within Europe, both have faced calls, intensified by coronavirus, to decouple their economies from China’s, especially sensitive sectors such as medical supply chains and telecommunications. The pandemic has helped seed a diverse if still nascent coalition of European leaders, ranging from some Social Democrats in Germany to conservatives in the U.K., and liberals in Central European states like the Czech Republic, for whom the pandemic has crystallized a view that China represents a systemic threat to western values, a perspective similar to the Trump administration’s.

China’s attempt to position itself as a global leader on the pandemic would also likely face skepticism from U.S. allies in Asia, although leaders there haven’t shown much appetite for wading into the dispute between the U.S. and China. Japan, for example, set aside $2.2 billion of its pandemic economic support package to help companies address supply-chain problems, which could help some diversify away from China. A poll of Japanese adults by public broadcaster NHK released this week found that 76% of respondents didn’t feel close to China. By contrast, 72% said they felt close to the U.S.

South Korea has tried to walk a careful line between its U.S. ally and its largest trading partner. President Moon Jae-in and his advisers haven’t joined the U.S. in blaming China. He also resisted calls from medical professionals in the early weeks of the pandemic to impose a travel ban on inbound foreigners from China, and the two countries have now restored limited business travel, with Samsung chief Lee Jae-yong visiting the conglomerate’s chip factories in China this week. But South Korea has also provided tens of thousands of test kits to Maryland, whose governor’s wife is South Korean-born, and millions of masks to Korean War veterans, most of whom are American.

In Europe, demands to push back against China have been kept at bay by national leaders who are more focused on the urgency of the pandemic, and troubled by America’s decision to pause WHO funding.

“Only if we join forces together will we beat this pandemic, and we need WHO for her irreplaceable coordinating role,” Mr. Macron said. “We need a strong WHO to tackle Covid-19, and the WHO is us.”

The presidents of Switzerland and South Africa made similar comments. “The world appears to be on autopilot,” said Prime Minister Mia Mottley of Barbados. “Who is in control? Where is the leadership? Where is the global cooperation?”

The assembly highlighted how China aims to turn an outbreak that began as a domestic and international crisis into an opportunity to shape global governance.

At home, Mr. Xi has been under pressure, facing an economic downturn and lingering public anger at officials’ failings in the early stages of the outbreak. China’s economy this year experienced its first ever quarterly contraction in gross domestic product performance since Beijing began reporting output in 1992.

But as cases in China have dropped to almost zero—mainland China reported seven cases on Sunday—Beijing has tried to establish itself as the global leader against coronavirus. The higher case count in the U.S. and Europe has helped the Communist Party soothe domestic frustrations by trumpeting China’s success in fighting the virus, compared with the West’s.

Beyond China, Mr. Xi has found an international community frustrated that no single country or organization has managed to lead the global response. Europe’s efforts have been disjointed, with different countries following their own playbook, and the EU unable to corral a common strategy. Many governments have ignored WHO guidance on issues such as who should wear face masks and when countries should exit lockdowns. Crucially, the U.S. has done little to coordinate its efforts with those of its longstanding allies in Europe and Asia, leading to a political vacuum that China is attempting to step into, some analysts say.

“This is as much about the U.S. as it is about China,” said Jude Blanchette, a China analyst at Center for Strategic and International Studies, who added, “Folks are craving leadership.”

“This puts the ball in the U.S. court: What have you got?” he added.

The U.S. had moved to use the assembly to advance two geopolitical gestures.

First, U.S. diplomats attempted to get Taiwan to attend as an observer, as its government did in previous years, before relations soured in recent years between China and the island, which Beijing regards as a province.

The U.S. also pushed for its allies to back an independent inquiry that would have probed whether the coronavirus outbreak was correctly handled by authorities in China, and whether the WHO could have done more to confront China over any public health shortcomings.

Both of the moves came up short.

Taiwan wasn’t able to secure an invite over China’s objection; 29 countries backed that proposal.

The island’s government objected to Mr. Xi’s top billing at the assembly. “This is also why some countries’ heads of states and deputy heads of states have questioned whether the agency has become the CHO,” said Alex Huang, a spokesman for Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen, using an abbreviation for a nonexistent “China Health Organization.”

“No pressure can set back the Taiwanese people’s collective will to participate in and contribute to the world,” he added.

In a statement Monday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo condemned the exclusion of Taiwan from the assembly.

Meanwhile, more than 100 countries agreed to support an independent inquiry, but only at a later date, and only after wording their resolution to omit any focus on China’s role. China has pushed for a broader review of how countries addressed the pandemic, an idea the U.S. worried would shift the blame from China to the many states, including the U.S., that failed to contain the virus on their own soil. Washington backed the resolution because U.S. officials expect the investigation will still allow for a close review of how the virus emerged, and what steps China failed to take to contain it.

In his comments at the assembly, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus supported a global inquiry along the lines that Mr. Xi proposed earlier in the summit. “To be truly comprehensive, such an evaluation must encompass the entirety of the response, by all actors, in good faith,” he said.