World

Trump says U.S. terminating relationship with WHO as rift with China grows

U.S. President Donald Trump announced Friday he would withdraw funding from the World Health Organization, end Hong Kong's special trade status and suspend visas of Chinese graduate students suspected of conducting research on behalf of their government.

President also tells administration to begin process of eliminating Hong Kong's special trade status

U.S. President Donald Trump announces the U.S. is terminating its relationship with the World Health Organization and beginning the process of eliminating special treatment for Hong Kong. (Alex Brandon/The Associated Press)

U.S. President Donald Trump announced Friday he would withdraw funding from the World Health Organization, end Hong Kong's special trade status and suspend visas of Chinese graduate students suspected of conducting research on behalf of their government.

The new measures come as the rift between the U.S. and China continues to grow during the coronavirus pandemic.

Trump has been expressing anger at the World Health Organization for weeks over what he has portrayed as an inadequate response to the initial outbreak of the coronavirus in the Chinese city Wuhan late last year.

The president said in a brief White House announcement that Chinese officials "ignored" their reporting obligations to the WHO and pressured the organization to mislead the public about an outbreak that has now killed more than 100,000 people in the United States.

"We have detailed the reforms that it must make and engaged with them directly, but they have refused to act," the president said. "Because they have failed to make the requested and greatly needed reforms, we will be today terminating the relationship."

The U.S. is the largest source of financial support for the WHO and its exit is expected to significantly weaken the organization. Trump said the U.S. would be "redirecting" the money to "other worldwide and deserving urgent global public health needs," without providing specifics. He said Chinese officials "ignored" their reporting obligations to the WHO and pressured it to mislead the world when the virus was first discovered.

He noted that the U.S. contributes about $450 million US to the world body while China provides about $40 million.

WHO withdrawal has 'no logical purpose'

Critics of the administration's decision to cut funding called it misguided, saying it would undermine an important institution that is leading vaccine development efforts and drug trials to address the COVID-19 outbreak.

"Severing ties with the World Health Organization serves no logical purpose and makes finding a way out of this public health crisis dramatically more challenging," said Dr. Patrice Harris, president of the American Medical Association. 

Sen. Chris Murphy called it a distraction that would "hand over" the organization to China.

"Leaving castrates our ability to stop future pandemics and elevates China as the world's go-to power on global health," said the Connecticut Democrat.

The WHO had no immediate comment. Officials of the UN agency have not directly addressed a letter that Trump sent to the general director on May 18, warning he would make permanent a temporary freeze on U.S. funding and reconsider U.S. membership unless it committed to "major substantive improvements within the next 30 days." That was 11 days ago.

Other countries will look to expand their influence

Brett Bruen, a former U.S. diplomat and White House adviser under Barack Obama, said by leaving the WHO, Trump was driving the country into a "deeper, darker disaster" at a time when countries need to work together.

He said any delays or difficulties are the fault of Beijing alone, as the WHO has no system for sanctioning countries' bad behaviour.

"Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran are salivating at the gold opportunity President Trump has delivered them to expand their influence in America's absence," he said in an email to CBC News.

Tensions over Hong Kong have been increasing for more than a year as China has cracked down on protesters and sought to exert more control over the former British territory.

People protest China's national security legislation in Hong Kong on Friday. (Kin Cheung/Associated Press)

Trump said the administration would begin eliminating the "full range" of agreements that had given Hong Kong a relationship with the U.S. that mainland China lacked, including exemptions from controls on certain exports. He said the State Department would begin warning U.S. citizens of the threat of surveillance and arrest when visiting Hong Kong.

"China has replaced its promised formula of one country, two systems, with one country, one system," he said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo notified Congress on Wednesday that Hong Kong is no longer deserving of the preferential trade and commercial status it has enjoyed from the U.S. since it reverted to Chinese control in 1997.

'Downward spiral'

It's not yet clear what impact the decision will have on U.S. companies that operate in Hong Kong or on the city's position as Asia's major financial hub, or how China will react to the decision.

"The downward spiral in the bilateral relationship has now reached lows not seen since the June 4, 1989, Tiananmen massacre, and there is little reason to expect things to get better soon," said Dexter Tiff Roberts, an Asia expert at the Atlantic Council, which publishes non-partisan policy analysis.

This combination photo shows recent portraits of Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Donald Trump. It's not yet clear how China will respond to the U.S. moves. (Dan Kitwood, Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images)

Rep. Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican who is a commissioner of the Congressional Executive Commission on China, praised the decision on Hong Kong as an overdue response to the government of President Xi Jinping for human rights abuses, including against religious minorities in the Xinjiang region.

"After years of human rights admonishment and cheap rhetoric devoid of any meaningful penalties, Xi has concluded that the West is all talk, no action," Smith said. "President Trump, however, is today beginning to change that and is doing what previous presidents have failed to do."

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this piece described Wuhan as a Chinese province. In fact, Wuhan is a city in Hubei province.
    May 30, 2020 10:17 AM ET

With files from CBC News

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