US President Donald Trump has noticeably changed his tune on China and the coronavirus – from praising then blaming China for mishandling the outbreak to stressing the need to work with Beijing as the pandemic takes a greater toll on the United States. After a phone call with his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping , Trump on Friday referred to the pathogen as the “coronavirus that is ravaging large parts of our planet”, rather than the controversial term “Chinese virus” he had used earlier. In the phone call, Xi and Trump took a more cooperative approach to the crisis, in contrast to the blame game their countries have played over the spread of the coronavirus , which causes a disease known as Covid-19. In the early stages of the outbreak, Trump praised China’s containment efforts, even as Beijing was criticised for its early missteps in the outbreak response, including inaction and local cover-ups. At one point, he even said the US “greatly appreciates” China’s efforts to stop the contagion. But as the number of cases in the US began to rise, domestic pressure mounted on the Trump administration over its own failures to ensure widespread testing and medical support. His attitude towards China’s transparency and its timeliness in disclosing information started to change on March 6, when he said the US had just learned about the virus a short while ago. Then on March 17, just days after Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian promoted a conspiracy theory that the virus had originated from the US military , Trump began referring to the pathogen as the “Chinese virus”. Trump continued to use the controversial term even though it angered Beijing and was criticised as promoting racism. He insisted that the virus came from China and said that he hoped Beijing could be more forthcoming. “I wish China would have told us more about what was going on in China, long prior to us reading about it, even though the news isn’t exactly disseminated,” Trump said on March 21. Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London, said the US president’s tactic had a benefit for his Chinese counterpart. “Trump engaging in a childish shouting match on where it started by calling it names simply [suits] Xi by distracting attention from his government’s failures and irresponsible handling of the threat until late January,” Tsang said. “For his part it was rank hypocrisy of Xi to take exception to the term ‘Wuhan virus’ as Covid-19 has been widely called the ‘Wuhan pneumonia’ in China for many weeks before senior US officials called it the ‘Wuhan virus’.” Trump started changing his tone again on March 23, one day after Chinese ambassador to the US Cui Tiankai publicly broke from Zhao’s position . On that day, he stopped using the term, acknowledging “really nasty language” was being directed towards Asian-Americans. Chin-hao Huang, an assistant professor of political science at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, said the timing of the phone call between the two leaders and the change of rhetoric was “rather strategically timed”. “The call came at this pivotal period where we see that the US has surpassed the number of confirmed cases in China, so that’s I think a pretty big deal,” he said. “I think that there is a bit of a shift but there’s also a bit of this reaching out, a rapprochement if you will, to see how the two countries can move past the finger pointing to try a different tack, which is some sort of cooperation rather than the confrontational approach that they've been engaged in in the last few weeks.” Huang said Trump’s language shift was also likely prompted by advisers suggesting that the term was not beneficial to the situation or to winning support from Asian-Americans heading into November’s presidential election. “Every segment of the American electorate is going to be important for his re-election,” he said. “So it’s a confluence of factors that are coming in to say, maybe this is not the most helpful way of dealing with the crisis at this point in time.” Rubrick Biegon, a lecturer in the school of politics and international relations at the University of Kent, said Trump was constantly modifying his messaging for different audiences and in different contexts. “Trump’s political instincts are to create a certain amount of ambiguity with respect to his plans and policies. He doesn’t want to be ‘pinned down’ to any one position, so he is prone to shift his rhetoric on a whim,” he said. “This rhetorical flexibility allows him to make political adjustments when things aren’t working well for him, but without appearing to be on defensive footing.” Rosemary Foot, a specialist in China-US relations at the University of Oxford, said Cui’s decision to break from Zhao’s rhetoric had been “important to placing a halt to the blame game on this issue”. “But important too is that both sides are concerned about entering a period of economic recession; both sides want to get beyond this issue and to restart their economies as quickly as possible and they remain closely interdependent economically,” she said. Purchase the China AI Report 2020 brought to you by SCMP Research and enjoy a 20% discount (original price US$400). 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