China’s ambassador reportedly is warning the Australian government its pursuit of a coronavirus inquiry could set off a boycott by Chinese consumers, who may no longer travel and study in Australia or buy major exports including beef and wine.
Ambassador Cheng Jingye told The Australian Financial Review in an interview published on Monday that Australia’s push for an inquiry was “dangerous” and predicted it would fail to gain traction.
“Resorting to suspicion, recrimination or division at such a critical time could only undermine global efforts to fight against this pandemic,” Cheng said.
Australian Health Minister Greg Hunt said an independent inquiry was in the interests of Australia and the world.
“We’ve seen 3 million people infected and over 200,000 lives lost so of course there has to be an independent review,” Hunt told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
“To have a major global, cataclysmic event and not to review it would seem very odd and very strange and so ultimately we have to take the steps that are in not just the interests of Australia, but in the interests of common humanity,” Hunt added.
The Australian government has called for an inquiry into the respiratory virus and for changes to the World Health Organization due to its alleged shortcomings in handling the pandemic.
Education is Australia’s third-largest export industry and China is the largest source of students studying in Australia. China is also Australia’s largest trading partner. The Chinese Embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the newspaper article.
The comments mark a significant escalation in tensions between Beijing and Canberra, whose relations are already strained. They also reflect the willingness of a new generation of Chinese diplomats to aggressively and publicly push Communist Party interests, using Chinese economic might as leverage if necessary.
Experts have said a full investigation into the coronavirus outbreak could prompt scrutiny of China’s rulers and their response to the crisis, and open the door for the type of criticism of the Party that is rarely tolerated.
Cheng also accused Australia of echoing talking points from the United States.
“Some guys are attempting to blame China for their problems and deflect the attention,” he said. “It’s a kind of pandering to the assertions that are made by some forces in Washington.”