At a General Assembly held almost entirely virtually due to Covid-19, Trump delivered a speech in election campaign mode, while Chinese President Xi Jinping instead unveiled ambitious new targets to fight climate change.
As the US death toll from Covid-19 reached the grim milestone of 200,000, the highest in the world, Trump attacked Beijing and the United Nations for not stopping the disease and even used the loaded term “China virus.”
“We must hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world — China,” Trump said in a recorded address to the General Assembly, where each nation was represented by a single, masked delegate.
“The Chinese government and the World Health Organization – which is virtually controlled by China – falsely declared that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission,” Trump said, referring to initial statements by the UN health body after Beijing covered up early cases of the respiratory disease.
Trump has given notice that the United States is pulling out of the World Health Organization, to which it has been the largest contributor.
Critics say Trump is trying to shift blame for his handling of Covid-19. His rival for the November 3 elections, Democrat Joe Biden, has vowed to keep the US in the WHO, which also fights against malaria, polio and other public health scourges.
Speaking before Xi’s announcement of China’s new climate pledge, Trump — who has pulled the United States out of the Paris accord on climate change — said that his critics ignored “China’s rampant pollution.”
“They only want to punish America. And I will not stand for it,” he said.
Leaders were asked to send videos of their speeches days in advance in a — partly successful — bid to avoid technical glitches, meaning Xi could not respond to Trump’s remarks.
But China’s ambassador to the United Nations, Zhang Jun, told reporters that Trump’s tone was “incompatible with the general atmosphere” of the world body.
“When the international community is really fighting hard against the Covid-19, the United States is spreading a political virus here in the General Assembly,” he said.
“If we do have to hold anyone accountable, it should be the United States held accountable for losing so many lives with their irresponsible behavior.”
Xi, in a mild-mannered speech delivered before a painting of the Great Wall, warned the world not to “politicize” the fight against coronavirus.
In a step hailed by environmentalists, Xi announced that China — the world’s largest polluter of greenhouse gases — would peak its emissions in 2030 and go carbon neutral by 2060.
China has been rapidly curbing dirty coal and shifting to renewable energy, but under the Paris accord had said only that it would cap emissions “around” 2030.
“We call on all countries to pursue innovative, coordinated, green and open development for all,” Xi said.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres voiced alarm over the US-China rift, warning that “we must do everything to avoid a new Cold War.”
“We are moving in a very dangerous direction. Our world cannot afford a future where the two largest economies split the globe in a Great Fracture — each with its own trade and financial rules and internet and artificial intelligence capacities,” Guterres said in a rare in-person address.
French President Emmanuel Macron similarly said that the rest of the world should not be reduced to “rueful spectators.”
“The world today cannot be reduced to the rivalry between China and the United States, irrespective of the global weight of these great powers,” he said.
The UN General Assembly in normal years draws about 10,000 people from around the world, a prospect that is unthinkable at a time when nations have imposed strict entrance requirements to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in his speech hailed the safety of a Covid vaccine unveiled by Moscow — which has drawn wide skepticism among Western scientists.
Putin called for universal access to the vaccine and offered to give it for free to UN staff.
“I repeat again that we are absolutely open and disposed for partnership,” Putin said.
Guterres in his address criticized nationalist approaches to the coronavirus, without naming Trump or other world leaders.
“Populism and nationalism have failed. Those approaches to contain the virus have often made things manifestly worse.”