Washington: The return of U.S. diplomats to posts in China and other countries after months of displacement by coronavirus has been complicated by disputes within the Trump administration over whether envoys can be subjected to mandatory testing and quarantining abroad.
A cable from Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, obtained by Bloomberg News, says that “as a matter of policy, the Department does not authorize the involuntary testing or quarantine/isolation” of diplomats who may return overseas. Diplomats and their families won’t be allowed to go to countries where they are subjected to coronavirus testing or quarantine in a “foreign government controlled facility,” Pompeo says in the cable dated June 27.
The memo and numerous other calls and cables from senior State Department leaders have touched off a heated debate within the agency over how best to get hundreds of American diplomats back overseas, particularly in countries like China that have insisted on testing all incoming diplomats and isolating them in government facilities if they test positive.
The testing issue appears to have been largely resolved with China but the prospect of quarantining in Chinese facilities remains a barrier for the U.S.
The broader dispute has also touched off anger and anxiety in the White House, where officials are fretful about getting into a fresh debate with China amid tensions over trade, Hong Kong and the treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang province, with President Donald Trump up for re-election in just four months, according to two people familiar with the issue.
In addition, there’s growing displeasure from some in the administration about the financial burden to U.S. taxpayers imposed by the departure of about 1,400 diplomats and their families from China, not to mention other outposts. There’s the cost of charter flights as well as the diplomats collecting thousands of dollars in per diem allowances while they’re displaced at a time when millions of Americans have lost their jobs.
The dispute comes as China has largely controlled the pandemic that originated there while the U.S. is facing a surge in cases of what Trump Thursday called “this terrible” virus that China “could have stopped.”
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A State Department spokesperson said the safety of employees and their families is of the highest concern and the U.S. is taking precautions to make sure diplomats are healthy when they leave the U.S.
Asked about the issue in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China and the U.S. have been “in close communication” on the matter.
“Our quarantine measures apply equally to all foreign diplomatic missions to China,” Zhao said. “We are committed to safeguarding the hard-won progress in fighting the virus.”
Numerous U.S. diplomats, all of whom asked not to be identified citing a fear of retribution, said they believe the risks of returning to their posts are acceptable and want to get back into the field. But others say they are worried that the tests could help foreign governments extract samples of their DNA, and they fear family members found to be positive for the virus could be separated from one another.
Travel to the U.S. from China, most of Europe and several other countries is still banned in most cases, but exceptions are made for some diplomats and other categories. It’s recommended that those arriving self-quarantine, but they face no other restrictions.
The debate over the State Department policy has touched off a round of soul-searching and recrimination given that China and other countries across Asia and in Europe have been much more effective in getting the virus under control than the U.S. has.
Diplomats have argued that they would actually be safer in the countries where they serve, and they contend that the U.S. inability to halt the virus undermines the State Department’s negotiating position when talking with foreign governments.
Adding to the pressure is that other nations, including many in Europe, are far more accommodating to Chinese demands to test returning diplomats upon arrival, quarantine for two weeks and get a second test as the isolation ends.
Already, plans to send U.S. diplomats back to some countries including China have been delayed. Flights carrying diplomats to Beijing and Shanghai set for July 8 and 10 were postponed because of complications that arose from a proposed U.S. compromise with China — if a diplomat tests positive, he or she would just return home rather than quarantining in China.-Bloomberg
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