Australia Stokes China Tensions With Call for Virus Probe

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Australia’s calls for an independent probe into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic is heightening tensions with Beijing, worrying businesses in the world’s most China-dependent developed economy.

Even as Australia prepares for its first recession in almost three decades after the virus-induced lockdown shuttered pubs, cinemas and thousands of small retailers, the government is determined that the roots of the outbreak must be investigated. China is pushing back, labeling calls for the probe “politically motivated” and warning of a potential consumer boycott of Australian products.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg on Wednesday dismissed China’s complaints and said Australia would not bow to “economic coercion.”

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“Australia thinks it’s prudent and sensible for there to be an independent and transparent investigation into the origins of this global pandemic that’s killed thousands and thousands of people,” he said in a Sky News interview Wednesday. “We won’t trade off health outcomes for economic outcomes.”

Foreign Minister Marise Payne has said an independent tribunal with powers similar to United Nations weapons inspectors should be allowed to enter Wuhan, where the outbreak first emerged late last year. She has alsocalled for an independent review into how China and the World Health Organization handled the initial stages of the pandemic.

Canberra has further stoked China’s ire by calling for the end of wildlife sales in so-called wet markets, one of which was one of the first places in Wuhan where the virus was detected.

While China remains Australia’slargest export destination, with sales of iron ore, coal and food at the heart of their A$213 billion ($137 billion) trading relationship, tensions between the countries have risen over the past two years and are now being exacerbated by the pandemic.

“We have to separate the diplomatic and virus concerns with the trading relationship,” Mark van Dyck, managing director of Asia-Pacific for U.K.-based food-services provider Compass Group, said in an Asia Society video briefing Tuesday. “To suggest that we reduce trade with China basically means we would reduce our standard of living as Australians, and reduce our ability to bounce back” from the economic fallout of the virus.

In an interview with the Australian Financial Review Monday, Beijing’s ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, blasted calls for the probe, which he said were likely instigated by the U.S.

Ambassador Cheng also rejected claims by “some politicians” from Australia that the virus originated in Wuhan, warned China’s tourists and students may be deterred from visiting and said its consumers may decide not to buy some Australian products, including beef and wine.

Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham pushed back a day later, saying the country wouldn’t change its policy position over “threats of coercion.” He said an Australian diplomat had called Cheng to discuss the comments, calling them disappointing.

Separate Concerns

China foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang told reporters in Beijing Tuesday the relationship between the two countries may have been affected by Australia’s push for an inquiry.

“The virus origin is a scientific problem that needs to be solved by scientists. On this issue, politicians should not make arbitrary remarks and should not use this to conduct political manipulation,” Geng said. “We believe that the most urgent thing now is to strengthen unity, enhance mutual trust, and deepen cooperation.”

In 2018, Australia passed laws aimed at stopping Beijing’s meddling in domestic affairs and banned Huawei Technologies Co. from helping build the new 5G telecommunications network on national security grounds.

The pandemic has only exacerbated those tensions. Beijing condemned Australia’s decisions to be one of the first nations to ban all non-resident arrivals from China at the outset of the virus. There have also been media reports of racist attacks in Australia blaming those with Chinese ethnicity over the outbreak.

“The relationship is in dangerous territory, “ said Jane Golley, a director of the Australian National University’s Australian Centre on China in the World. “The narrative in Australia seems to be set that we’re too dependent on China and we don’t like their government. This could well lead to reductions in trading volumes, including student and tourist inflows as well as consumer goods.”

While Golley said Australia lacked the diplomatic heft to force Beijing to change its internal policies,Richard Maude, an executive director of policy and China watcher at the Asia Society who has three decades of experience in Australia’s diplomatic and intelligence services, said “no Australian government can afford to give in to this type of threat” by backing away from its call for the independent probe into the virus’s origins.

Widening Rift

The tensions with Australia come amid a broader rift between China and the west being fueled by the pandemic, withEuropean diplomats increasingly vocal in their anger over claims of price gouging by Chinese suppliers of medical equipment intended to treat Covid-19 patients and Beijing’s blindness to how its actions are perceived.

U.S. Secretary of State Michael Pompeo last week called for the closure of China’s wet markets.

“Even as we fight the outbreak, we must remember that the long-term threats to our shared security have not disappeared,” Pompeo said. He also accused China of “provocative behavior” in the South China Sea, wherethree U.S. ships and an Australian Anzac-class frigate have conducted exercises in the past week.

When questioned about the possibility of holding China accountable for the outbreak at a White House briefing on Tuesday, President Donald Trump said the U.S. was doing its own investigation into Beijing’s sharing of coronavirus information.

“We are not happy with China,” Trump said. “We are not happy with that whole situation.”

Beijing, meanwhile, has in the past week rejected global health experts’ evidence that the virus originated in a Wuhan market via the sale of exotic wild animals.

Despite the political pressure, Ashley Townshend, director of the foreign policy and defense program at the University of Sydney’s United States Studies Centre, said it was “quite unlikely” China would agree to an investigation.

“The problem for Australia is it isn’t speaking with a unified international voice so that has allowed China to retaliate,” Townshend said. He added that China risked damaging its international reputation should it continue to rebuff calls for transparency regarding the global health crisis.

“From the South China Sea to tensions in Hong Kong, there are cracks readily apparent in the narrative that China is ready to step up as a responsible global leader,” he said.

— With assistance by Jing Li

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