SYDNEY • China's ambassador to Australia has warned that demands for a probe into the spread of the coronavirus could lead to a consumer boycott of Australian wine or trips Down Under.
Australia has joined the US in calling for a thorough investigation into how the virus transformed from a localised epidemic in central China into a pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 people, forced billions into isolation and stalled the global economy.
In a thinly veiled threat, Ambassador Cheng Jingye warned that the push for an independent inquest into the origins of the outbreak was "dangerous".
"The Chinese public is frustrated, dismayed and disappointed with what Australia is doing now," he said in an interview with the Australian Financial Review published on Sunday.
"If the mood is going from bad to worse, people would think, 'Why should we go to such a country that is not so friendly to China?' The tourists may have second thoughts. It is up to the people to decide. Maybe the ordinary people will say, 'Why should we drink Australian wine? Eat Australian beef?'"
Mr Cheng also mentioned the flow of Chinese students to Australian universities, a key source of revenue that is already under threat from pandemic travel restrictions.
"The parents of the students would also think whether this place which they found is not so friendly, even hostile, whether this is the best place to send their kids."
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.
The Australian government said last week that it would push for an international investigation into the coronavirus pandemic at next month's annual meeting of the World Health Assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Australia wants the WHO to be strengthened, and is suggesting having inspectors with the power to enter a country to respond more quickly to a health crisis in the style of weapons inspectors.
Australia sits on the executive board of the assembly, which determines WHO policies and appoints the director-general. The assembly is due to meet on May 17.
The WHO's response to the outbreak has become contentious, with US President Donald Trump accusing it of being "China-centric" and suspending US funding to the global body.
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 Communist Party that is rarely tolerated.
Mr Cheng accused Australia of echoing talking points from the US.
"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."
Diplomats believe the May meeting will open the door for discussion of Australia's call for an inquiry because agenda items already include calls for a "lessons learnt" review of health emergencies, and urge members to comply with international health regulations introduced after the 2002-2003 severe acute respiratory syndrome outbreak in China.
"The World Health Assembly is coming up in May. There are opportunities to pursue that matter there and that is our first port of call," Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said last week.
He told reporters that he understood the hesitation about the timing and played down suggestions that China would be targeted.
"Our purpose here is just pretty simple - we would like the world to be safer when it comes to viruses," Mr Morrison said.
Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne wrote in a newspaper column last week that no country would be singled out and that the WHO's role should be reviewed because Canberra wanted strong multilateral institutions.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS