In a rare no-holds-barred public repudiation, during which the traditional diplomatic decorum was temporarily placed in abeyance – the Chinese authorities in SA shred into pieces a US government report that persists on Washington’s standpoint that COVID-19 could have originated in Wuhan, China.

The report, ordered by US President Joe Biden into his intelligence services to determine within a 90-day period the origin of coronavirus, the report – made public recently – cited unhappiness with China’s alleged refusal to cooperate with the US investigators.

Last week, the US Office of the Director of National Intelligence released what they termed “key takeaways” of the Summary of Assessment on COVID-19 Origins. The report claimed that “China withholds information, refuses to cooperate and obstructs international investigation”.

The US intelligence services investigation came in the wake of a joint World Health Organisation (WHO)-China study into the origin-tracing of COVID-19, which in March this year found that there was no evidence linking the origin of COVID-19 to a Wuhan laboratory leak as alleged what China regards as conspiracy theorists.

In a rare address to the media, China’s ambassador to SA Chen Xiaodong told a packed virtual press conference, “Some US politicians are obsessed with stigmatizing the virus by associating it with certain countries and places. These moves do nothing but politicize COVID-19 origin tracing. These politicians also attempt to pressure WHO into conducting a so-called Phase II investigation into China. In the name of origin-tracing that should have been based on science, the US attempts to plant evidence to incriminate China.”

Bilateral relations between Washington and Beijing have been frosty since former US President Donald Trump’s mocking reference to coronavirus as “China virus”. The public spat was also characterized by tit-for-tat economic sanctions and tariffs on goods and services.

The Biden administration has continued with the country’s adversarial China foreign policy that regards Beijing as a major threat to the US and western global interests.

COVID-19 origin tracing has become the latest focal point of political wrangling in the deteriorating US-China relations. It also affects international Geopolitics and North-South relations. The story is made more important by China’s rapid rise as a global superpower. Since the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union at the turn of the ’90s, the US has enjoyed its almost omnipotent status as the world’s only remaining superpower.

In May last year, the 73rd World Health Assembly (WHA) adopted a resolution that was co-sponsored by more than 140 countries including China on COVID-19 response. The resolution called on the WHO to cooperate with all parties “to identify zoonotic source of the virus, the possible role of intermediate hosts and the transmission routes”.

On March 30 this year, the WHO released a report of the joint WHO-China study of origins of SARS-CoV-2, which had analysed the “four means of transmission”. The report was authored by more than 30 top global experts in various relevant fields and was premised on a science-based approach. Notably, the report found that “the Wuhan lab leak theory is extremely unlikely”. The report put forward suggestions such as to continue to look for “more possible early cases in a wider range around the globe” and to “further understand the role of cold chain and frozen food in virus transmission”.

The joint WHO-China Study team agreed to recognise the scientific findings in the report. Respecting and upholding the findings was to serve as the basis for the next phase of global origin tracing. But China is enraged that although American participation formed part of the study group, Washington has elected to continue casting aspersions on the authenticity of the report. Said Ambassador Xiaodong: “Whatever the US side says or does on origin-tracing has turned into nothing but a farce and a terrible scandal for the international community.”

Now, cordial US-China relations are vitally important for world peace. China is no push-over for any country. Unlike China, many less-powerful countries that find themselves on the wrong side of the US foreign policy, such as Iran, Libya, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba, Haiti and North Korea, among others, pay a heavy price of unilateral economic sanctions that Washington imposes willy-nilly and coerce the rest of the world through intimidation to observe.

The weak European Union and the heavily indebted NATO relies on US funding for its operational costs lack independence of thought as well as political will to disagree with a hand that feed them.

But the US cannot attack China as it does dozens of lesser mortals. Beijing has steadfastly built its military capacity and economic expansion quietly over a number of decades. The fact that China counts among its closest allies Russia – the US’s traditional arch-rival, does not bode well for Washington’s hegemony. Both Moscow and Beijing are nuclear powers of note, with large sophisticated militaries.

The two very close allies are also members of the emerging powerful BRICS bloc which is steadily reconfiguring Geopolitics. Over and above, China and Russia are two of the only five permanent members of the UN Security Council. As a privilege, they each possess powerful veto powers. The other permanent members are the US, France and the UK. In fact, so powerful is the veto power that the US has used it systematically over the years to thwart all UN resolutions against Washington’s closest ally, Israel, for Tel Aviv’s excesses against the oppressed people of Palestine.

Geopolitical peace and stability require strong multilateralism. The US cannot wish China away. Beijing’s foreign policy is premised on cooperation with the international community. Unilateralism, as often practiced by the US, has proved time and time again that its inevitable outcome as a foreign policy is a plain disaster. In a long list of examples, Afghanistan stands out as the latest point in case.

After 20 years of the invasion of Afghanistan and more than 2400 US deaths and over 100 000 Afghan casualties – notwithstanding the more than $3.7 trillion (more than R50 trillion) – the same Taliban that the US flew into Kabul to oust are back in power without much ado.

I hope that as China continues to develop and emerge as another superpower in its own right, the US will not make the terrible mistake of starting a military confrontation with Beijing. The thought of anything like that is too ghastly to contemplate.