US-NEWS-CORONAVIRUS-ORIGINS-PROBE-GET

This aerial view shows the P4 laboratory, center, on the campus of the Wuhan Institute of Virology in Wuhan in China's central Hubei province in mid-2020. The lab conducts research on the world's most dangerous diseases and has been accused by some top U.S. officials of being the source of the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Secretary of State Antony Blinken stressed the need for cooperation and transparency over the origins of COVID-19 in a call with Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi on Friday and raised other contentious topics, including China’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims, Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Yang, China’s top diplomat, expressed Beijing’s serious concern to Blinken that some people in the United States were spreading the “absurd story” about the coronavirus escaping from a Wuhan laboratory, Chinese state media said.

The call came ahead of a G7 summit in Britain attended by President Joe Biden that is expected to be dominated by Washington-led efforts to counter China’s growing influence.

The world’s two largest economies are deeply at odds over issues ranging from trade and technology to human rights and the coronavirus. Washington should work with Beijing to put ties “back on track,” said Yang, head of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of China’s ruling Communist Party.

Yang said Beijing firmly opposed what he called “abominable actions” over the pandemic, which he said were being used to slander China, state broadcaster CCTV said.

The State Department said the diplomats also discussed North Korea policy and that Blinken expressed U.S. concerns over the deterioration of democratic norms in Hong Kong and what Washington describes as the genocide of Muslim Uyghurs in China’s Xinjiang region.

Blinken also called on China to stop its pressure campaign against Taiwan and to release “wrongfully detained” U.S. and Canadian citizens, it said in a statement.

The State Department said the discussion on North Korea — an issue on which the United States is keen for more Chinese action to press its ally and neighbor to give up its nuclear weapons — focused on the need for Beijing and Washington “to work together for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

It said the two diplomats also continued discussions on shared global challenges, including Iran and Myanmar, and the climate crisis.

The U.S. State Department issued its own statement after the meeting.

“Addressing the COVID-19 pandemic, the Secretary (Blinken) stressed the importance of cooperation and transparency regarding the origin of the virus, including the need for WHO Phase 2 expert-led studies in China,” the statement said, referring to the World Health Organization.

Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the German Marshall Fund of the United States think tank, said that although the agenda included potential areas of cooperation, the conversation appeared dominated by contentious issues.

She said Yang’s call for Washington to work with Beijing to put ties “back on track” indicated China was still putting the onus on the United States for the problems in the relationship.

“That’s a non-starter, but demonstrates that the Chinese are sticking to their tried-and-true diplomatic approaches, even though they are not successful.”

A report on the origins of COVID-19 by a U.S. government national laboratory concluded the hypothesis of a viral leak from a Chinese lab in Wuhan was plausible and deserved further investigation, the Wall Street Journal said on Monday.

“We urge the United States to respect facts and science, refrain from politicizing the issue ... and focus on international cooperation in the fight against the pandemic,” Yang said.