A 'new Cold War?' China blames U.S. for growing tensions

The United States is pushing China to the brink of a "new Cold War," China's foreign minister said as officials in the world's two largest economies continue trading barbs over each other’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

"This dangerous attempt to turn back the wheel of history will undo the fruits of decadeslong China-U.S. cooperation, dampen American's own development prospects, and put world stability and prosperity in jeopardy,” Foreign Minister Wang Yi said Sunday in a video news conference on the sidelines of the annual session of China's National People's Congress.

Wang blamed the worsening tensions on "some political forces in the U.S." that were "taking China-U.S. relations hostage."

He did not say what "political forces" he was referring to, but while Beijing in general seeks to safeguard the personal relationship between President Donald Trump and President Xi Jinping by not criticizing the U.S. leader, senior White House figures such as Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have been singled out for criticism.

The ratcheting up of tensions comes as China is hounded by questions over alleged missteps in its initial response to contain the virus and silencing of whistleblowers.

Trump has criticized China’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, questioning the accuracy of its official death toll and accusing the country of a lack of transparency. The president, who has previously referred to the outbreak as the "Wuhan virus" or "China virus,” has also accused the World Health Organization of helping Beijing cover up the outbreak.

China has so far rejected all criticism, and defended its actions while also calling into question the speed and effectiveness of the U.S. response to the pandemic.

Wang's comments came on the heels of a tumultuous WHO general assembly at which — without naming China directly — the U.S. delegation said there had been "an apparent attempt to conceal this outbreak by at least one member state."

The U.S. is leading the global coronavirus death toll with 98,578 reported fatalities and more than 1.6 million reported cases, according to an NBC News tally. China' health officials have reported 4,634 deaths and 82,985 cases.

While it’s believed the pandemic started in a wet market in the city of Wuhan in China’s central Hubei province in December, Trump said last month that he has seen information that gave him high confidence that the outbreak was the result of an accidental release from a Wuhan laboratory, without characterizing the evidence.

On Sunday, the director of the Wuhan Institute of Virology called speculation that the coronavirus pandemic originated there “pure fabrication."

Wang Yanyi told China’s state broadcaster, CGTN, the institute first received a clinical sample of the virus in late December, which after inspection, was determined to contain the new coronavirus.

“We didn't have any knowledge before that, nor had we ever encountered, researched or kept the virus,” Wang said. “In fact, like everyone else, we didn't even know the virus existed.”

The coronavirus is just one of several points of contention between the two countries. Another one is Hong Kong.

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Last week, Beijing introduced a new national security law that could limit protests and dramatically reduce the autonomy of the former British colony — a move that has raised concerns from the U.S. and several other nations.

The bill would allow China to sidestep the territory's own legislative body to crack down on activity Beijing considers subversive.

The city’s pro-democracy legislators have strongly opposed the bill, calling it “the end of Hong Kong” and the rule of law in the former British colony.

Thousands of protesters marched against the law in defiance of curbs imposed to contain the coronavirus Sunday, with police firing tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds as unrest returned to the city after months of relative calm.

On Monday, several government departments and the city's police commissioner said they supported the proposed law.

Wang, the foreign minister, also said Sunday that establishing what he called a legal system and enforcement mechanisms for safeguarding national security in Hong Kong has become “a pressing priority” in light of mass protests last year over a controversial extradition bill and alleged foreign meddling in Hong Kong affairs.

He added that the proposed law targets "a very narrow category of acts that seriously jeopardize national security," and will have no impact on the city’s high degree of autonomy.

Reuters contributed to this report.