Hermione Dickey, 8, and her mother, Priscilla, head to the Wuhan Tianhe International Airport on a US evacuation flight out of Wuhan, China, January 2020. Photo: Facebook

China-United States rows over Covid-19 could soon flare again as Washington dispatches diplomats to reopen its consulate in Wuhan, the pandemic’s original epicenter.

Beijing and Washington are still trading rhetorical blows over the pandemic with the US claiming Beijing intentionally manufactured and leaked the virus, and China at one point asserting the US first delivered and spread the pathogen in Wuhan.

The antagonism has been compounded by a lingering trade war and a fresh duel over the status of Hong Kong. Some now wonder if the US’ move to reopen its Wuhan mission could trigger a new bilateral spat as speculation swirls that the envoys could seek to gather new intelligence on Wuhan’s initial outbreak.

China’s Foreign Ministry was caught off guard when American ambassador to China Terry Branstad notified Beijing earlier this week that US diplomats would start returning to Wuhan this month.

Though the Chinese Foreign Ministry is unlikely to refuse entry to Consul-General Jamie Fouss and his colleagues as a matter of diplomatic protocol, a government spokesperson did not respond to questions about the Wuhan consulate’s reopening at a press conference on Thursday (June 11).

Chinese President Xi Jinping visits the Covid-19 epicenter Wuhan, Hubei province, on March 10, 2020. Photo: Xinhua

The US State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Legislative Affairs Mary Elizabeth Taylor, however, said that getting the diplomats back to their positions in Wuhan is a priority, particularly now that America’s ties with China were at a “crucial juncture.”

The consulate’s reopening had been scheduled for June 22. However, an attache with America’s embassy in Beijing said no concrete date had been decided, but that preparation for the reopening was on course.

In a rare acknowledgment of China’s successful effort in containing the highly-infectious respiratory disease, the State Department noted that the situation on the ground in Wuhan had improved substantially and that most staffers felt safe to return to the central Chinese megacity.

Wuhan has reportedly sustained a 23-day streak of no new infections. The city cured and discharged its last patient in May, according to official statistics.

A clerk with the Wuhan municipal government’s foreign affairs office told Asia Times on the condition of anonymity that they did not expect US diplomats to return so early, and that there is widespread suspicion that the returning Americans could be on “secret missions.”

“Why are they so eager to return now, when they were among the first batch of foreigners to have fled Wuhan during the outbreak?” the clerk said.

“Are they planning to conduct an investigation into the origins of the virus this time or to find evidence to back up [US President Donald] Trump’s claim that China first leaked it, or at least Wuhan was the initial breeding ground? I don’t know.”

Those suspicions are seeded by a rising international call, spearheaded by Australia, for an independent inquiry into the pandemic’s origins. Beijing has hotly rejected those calls and has downgraded relations with Australia as a result.

The US and Australia share intelligence information as part of the “Five Eyes” intelligence sharing network which also comprises Canada, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

Washington was among the first major countries to withdraw its diplomats and residents and shut its consulate. That happened in late January when hospitals in Wuhan started to overflow with patients as the mysterious disease quickly spread through the city of more than 10 million people.

The US pulled out its diplomats and citizens from Wuhan on January 28, when the city was hit by a fast-spreading Covid-19 outbreak. Photo: Handout

The high-profile move to airlift Americans out of Wuhan, reportedly announced without any consultations with Beijing, was done as Beijing and local cadres scrambled to downplay the unfolding health crisis.

By contrast, Beijing thanked France and praised Hong Kong for keeping respectively their consulate and representative office open in Wuhan, both of which are situated in the same tower as the US consulate. Both stayed open during the most precarious period of the city’s outbreak.

At the peak of the local epidemic in February, when Wuhan was put under a sweeping lockdown, Beijing lashed out at the US for “gloating” over China’s misery and not donating medical supplies. Instead, masks and hazmat gear were flown in from other countries such as Russia and Japan.

As such, Americans can expect a frosty reception when they return to Wuhan.

There have been calls among the city’s residents and online netizens that returning US diplomats should be stripped of their diplomatic immunity and put in quarantine for 14 days, in conformity with the strict health screening and checks for people who enter from overseas.

“They were so anxious to leave but now they want to get back? Give me a break … If they really want to be back, I can only hope they will not bring the ‘Trump’ virus into my city,” one social media user posted.

Others have called on Beijing to declare all US diplomats persona non grata.

Some in Wuhan fret about a possible “second wave” of infections with the return of Americans, whose country now tops global tallies of Covid-19 infections and casualties.

The conspiracy theory claiming that the US brought the virus into Wuhan still holds sway among many Chinese, as some suspect US military delegates attending the Military World Games held in Wuhan in October planted the virus in the city.

In March, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian repeated the unproven claim on his Twitter account, which is inaccessible for ordinary Chinese netizens.

Washington’s consulate in Wuhan was opened in 2008 and normally has more than 30 diplomats in residence. Other than Wuhan and the rest of Hubei province, the consulate has responsibility for the populous provinces of Hunan, Henan and Jiangxi.

US Consul-General to Wuhan Jamie Fouss. Photo: Handout

A new venue for the consulate in a different office tower is in the works and is still slated for completion this year to provide full consular services. The work was reportedly affected by Covid-19.

Twelve years ago, Wuhan rolled out the red carpet for Americans to return. The US maintained a long historical presence in central China’s largest urban center prior to the founding of the Communist republic in 1949.

Then, the re-establishment of the US consulate was seen by Wuhan cadres as American recognition of the city’s top-tier status and an opportunity to attract investments from the US.

But those warm feelings have since faded. Wuhan previously hosted two air routes to New York City and San Francisco. Both services have been suspended indefinitely. America’s other consulates in Shanghai, Guangzhou, Chengdu and Shenyang are also resuming full services.