China-Australia rift deepens over calls for virus inquiry

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) – China’s warning of trade repercussions from Australia’s campaign for an independent inquiry into the coronavirus has rattled Australian business leaders as United States (US) President Donald Trump’s administration urges other governments to back such a probe.

China has accused Australia of parroting the US 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.

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.”

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo attacked China’s coercion and urged US 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 yesterday 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 US presidential elections in November to avoid political blame-shifting.