Australia says China unresponsive to its pleas to ease tensions

FILE PHOTO-Office buildings are seen in a reflection amidst the easing of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions in the Central Business District of Sydney, Australia, June 3, 2020. Picture taken June 3, 2020. REUTERS/Loren Elliott

MELBOURNE, June 8 (Reuters) – Australia said on Monday China remains unresponsive to its weeks-long pleas to ease tensions between the two trading partners that escalated after Canberra called for an international enquiry into the origins of the novel coronavirus.

Australia has insisted the call for an independent investigation into the pandemic, which it says most likely originated in a wildlife market in the Chinese city of Wuhan, was not politically targeted at Beijing.

China accused Australia of playing “petty tricks” and the Chinese ambassador to Australia said Chinese consumers could boycott Australian products if Australia pursued the inquiry.

China has also since suspended beef imports from four of Australia’s largest meat processors and imposed hefty tariffs on barley, although both sides say that is unrelated to the latest spat.

Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, who has been requesting discussions with Chinese counterpart for weeks, said Beijing has been ignoring Canberra’s pleas.

“Unfortunately, our requests for a discussion have so far been met negatively,” Birmingham told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio on Monday. “That’s disappointing.”

China did not deny Birmingham’s specific comments on trade, but said diplomatic channels are open between the two countries.

“We hope that Australia will meet China halfway, truly adhere to principles of mutual respect and equality, and do more things that is beneficial to China-Australia’s mutual trust and cooperation,” said spokeswoman Hua Chunying at a daily briefing.

China is Australia’s biggest export market. Relations have been strained amid Australian accusations of Chinese meddling in domestic affairs and concern about what Australia sees as China’s growing regional influence.

On Friday, China advised its people to avoid travelling to Australia, citing racial discrimination and violence against the Chinese in connection with the pandemic, which Canberra disputed.

A Newspoll for The Australian newspaper on Monday showed 79% of Australians backed a global coronavirus investigation.