Defense Sec Mark Esper: China Must Allow Access to Early Coronavirus Patients, Scientists

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper speaks to reporters during a briefing at the Pentagon, Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2019. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo

Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Tuesday called on China to allow the international community access to its early coronavirus patients, researchers, and scientists so that the origin of the virus can be determined.

Esper said at a Pentagon press conference Tuesday:

The Chinese have not been transparent from the beginning. If they had been more transparent, more open and upfront in terms of giving us access…not [only] to the people on the ground but to the virus they had, so we could understand it, we’d probably be in a far different place right now.

He added, “But where we are now is this. They need to still allow us in to talk to early patients, to talk to the Chinese researchers and scientists and to have access.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley also called on China to open up and allow international inspectors to go in.

“Did it come out of the virology lab in Wuhan, did it occur in the wet market there in Wuhan? … The answer to that is we don’t know, and…various agencies, both civilian and U.S. government, are looking at that,” he said, adding:

It would help a great deal if the Chinese government would open up and allow inspectors and investigators to go there in full transparency so that the world can know the actual original source of this, so that we can apply the lessons learned and prevent outbreaks in the future.

China is coming under growing international scrutiny as more countries demand answers as to how the coronavirus originated and spread to the rest of the world.

According to numerous press accounts, Chinese authorities punished doctors who shared information in late December about the discovery of the flu-like disease in Wuhan, China, and insisted through mid-January that there was no evidence that it could spread between people.

Later, they prohibited the publication of research on the virus’s origin without Beijing’s approval, and have refused to allow international investigators access to early samples of the virus or access to researchers who could provide answers as to the virus’s origins.

Now China is exploiting the crisis caused by the virus’s spread for their own benefit, Esper said.

He said the Chinese Communist Party has ramped up its disinformation campaign to “shift blame and burnish its image.”

He said, for example, China is donating medical supplies that often later turn out to be faulty, or loans that come with strings attached.

“They’re trying to capitalize on this by promoting their own image, that somehow China is the good guy here,” he said.

“Now they want to go out and say, ‘Well, here’s masks. We’ll give you masks, we’ll provide this, or provide that, we’ll provide you funding. Look at all the good we’re doing,'” he said.

“They provide masks, they provide supplies. In many cases, it is not good. It doesn’t do what it supposed to do. It’s broken equipment. Also are–the strings attached are enormous in many cases,” he added.

“They’re telling a country, here, you can take these masks, but please, put out publicly how good China is, how great we’re doing, et cetera, et cetera. So there’s a number of things they were doing to try and burnish their image. That’s just two of them right there,” he said.

In addition, China is using their military to bully smaller countries in the region, he said.

“We continue to see aggressive behavior by the [People’s Liberation Army] in the South China Sea from threatening a Philippine Navy ship to sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat and intimidating other nations from engaging in offshore oil and gas development,” he said.

Esper said last week the U.S. Navy sent two ships through the South China Sea to send a “clear message to Beijing” that the U.S. will continue to protect freedom of navigation and international commerce in the strategic body of water for “all nations large and small.”

Esper said China is also doing a lot of “strong-arming” behind the scenes.

He referenced China’s public lashing out against Australia for backing an international investigation into the origins of the coronavirus. After Australia said it would call for the World Health Organization to launch an investigation, Chinese officials and state media threatened a trade war against Australia.

“They’re also doing a lot of strong-arming behind the scenes. You’ve seen it…with regard between Beijing and–and Australia, what’s happening there,” he said.

Esper said he would be talking to his Australian counterpart later in the day.

“All these activities are going. It’s straight from the Chinese playbook,” he said.

“They’re using a combination of compellence and coercion and everything else to try and shape the narrative and burnish the image of the Chinese Communist Party.”


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