SYDNEY, April 29 (Reuters) – China accused Australia of “petty tricks” on Wednesday in an intensifying dispute over Canberra’s push for an international inquiry into the coronavirus outbreak that could affect diplomatic and economic ties between the countries.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his proposed inquiry into how the coronavirus developed and spread would not be targeted at China but was needed given COVID-19 had killed more than 200,000 people and shut down much of the global economy.
“Now, it would seem entirely reasonable and sensible that the world would want to have an independent assessment of how this all occurred, so we can learn the lessons and prevent it from happening again,” he said.
Australian government ministers have repeatedly said China was threatening “economic coercion” after its ambassador, Cheng Jingye, said this week that Chinese consumers could boycott Australian products and universities because of the calls for the inquiry.
The head of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) called Cheng to express concern. The Chinese embassy then released a statement detailing what it said was discussed on the call, prompting another rebuke from DFAT.
On Wednesday, the Chinese embassy returned fire, saying on its website that details of the call had first been “obviously leaked by some Australian officials” and it needed to set the record straight.
“The Embassy of China doesn’t play petty tricks, this is not our tradition. But if others do, we have to reciprocate,” an embassy spokesman said in the statement.
Chinese state media has fiercely rounded on Morrison, with Australian studies scholar Chen Hong writing in the Global Times tabloid on Wednesday that Australia was “spearheading” a “malicious campaign to frame and incriminate China”.
And Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the paper which is affiliated to the Beijing-controlled People’s Daily newspaper, said on Chinese social media that Australia was always making trouble.
“It is a bit like chewing gum stuck on the sole of China’s shoes. Sometimes you have to find a stone to rub it off,” Hu wrote.
The Australian government has been highlighting that the trading relationship with China, its biggest trading partner, was mutually beneficial as the diplomatic tensions escalate.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said that about 60% of China’s iron ore imports come from Australia, and told Sky News the country wouldn’t respond to “economic coercion”.
An Australian iron ore mining magnate who built his fortune in China, Andrew Forrest, backed the idea of an inquiry into the coronavirus pandemic but said it should be held after November’s U.S. presidential election so it was not seen as political.
Forrest, founder and chairman of Fortescue Metals Group, said the government’s call for an international investigation was “commonsense”.
“But it is not to be a Chinese inquiry, that would make it instantly political,” he said.
“If this is held after the U.S. presidential election, then let’s just say there’s not going to be a political dog in this fight,” Forrest told ABC radio.