CANBERRA – China’s warning of trade repercussions from Australia’s campaign for an independent inquiry into the coronavirus has rattled Australian business leaders as President Donald Trump’s administration urges other governments to back such a probe.
China has accused Australia of parroting the United States in its call for an inquiry independent of the World Health Organization to determine the origins of COVID-19 and how the world responded to the emerging pandemic.
Chinese Ambassador Cheng Jingye used an Australian newspaper interview this week to warn that pursuing an inquiry could spark a Chinese consumer boycott of students and tourists visiting Australia as well as of sales of major exports including beef and wine.
When senior Australian diplomat Frances Adamson raised concerns about the interview, Cheng took the extraordinary step of making public his account of their telephone conversation. Cheng said he told Adamson to “put aside ideological bias” and “stop political games.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attacked China’s coercion and urged U.S. partner countries to also demand transparency and answers.
“I saw some comments from the Chinese foreign ministry talking about coercive activity with respect to Australia, who had the temerity to ask for an investigation. Who in the world wouldn’t want an investigation of how this happened to the world?” Pompeo told reporters in Washington.
The Chinese foreign ministry has said the allegation of economic coercion was unfounded.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Friday stood firm on his call for an inquiry and denied any motivation other than to prevent such a pandemic happening again.
“I don’t think anybody’s in any fantasy land about where it started. It started in China and what the world over needs to know -- and there’s a lot of support for this -- is how did it start and what are the lessons that can be learned,” Morrison told Sydney Radio 2GB.
“That needs to be done independently and why do we want to know that? Because it could happen again."
Some Australian business leaders have warned of economic damage from a boycott by Australia’s biggest trading partner. Corporate leaders have advised against any inquiry until after U.S. presidential elections in November to avoid political blame-shifting.
Australian media magnate Kerry Stokes used the front page of The West Australian newspaper to urge Morrison to appease China.
“If we’re going to go into the biggest debt we’ve had in our life and then simultaneously poke our biggest provider of income in the eye, it’s not necessarily the smartest thing you can do,” his newspaper quoted Stokes as saying, referring to billions of dollars in debt the government has run up trying to keep the economy afloat.
Relations between China and Australia have been strained by Australia’s outlawing of covert foreign interference in politics and institutions. China is particularly angry that Australia has banned Chinese communications giant Huawei from involvement in critical infrastructure on security grounds.
Long delays in moving Australian wine from Chinese wharfs and in offloading shipments of Australian coal with little or vague explanation have been linked to the bilateral dispute.
But the coronavirus has brought a new intensity to the rift.
The Chinese foreign ministry has repeatedly scolded Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton when they argued for more transparency.
Payne has accused Ambassador Cheng of “economic coercion,” government lawmaker Trent Zimmer has condemned his boycott comments as “downright despicable and menacing,” while former Australian Foreign Minister Alexander Downer says the ambassador has “gone rogue.”
Chinese diplomat Long Shou, a state consular-general, has been accused of gatecrashing Health Minister Greg Hunt’s coronavirus news conference on Tuesday by turning up without a government invitation and speaking about China-Australia relations.
“Beijing’s message around the world today is: tremble and obey, and we will reward you with goodies if you do,” The Australian newspaper’s Foreign Editor Greg Sheridan wrote.
Asia Society Policy Institute President Kevin Rudd, a Mandarin-speaking former Australian prime minister and student of China, said that whether China carried out economic retaliation against Australia “would be very much a wait-and-see process.”
“The bottom line is, put megaphones away and use private lines of communication to solve very complex, very difficult and very hard questions,” Rudd said. “That’s the best way for all parties into the future.”