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.