COVID-19 SPECIAL

Australia in a bind after calls to probe origins of outbreak

Australian residents being helped by military staff after arriving at the Sydney airport during the pandemic. The Morrison government has called for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus.
Australian residents being helped by military staff after arriving at the Sydney airport during the pandemic. The Morrison government has called for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Australia has struggled in recent years to balance its relations with the United States, its closest ally, and China, its largest trading partner - but the Covid-19 pandemic is making this delicate task even harder.

As tensions increased between Beijing and Washington over the origins of the outbreak, Canberra has struggled to find a position that satisfied both.

Instead, the Morrison government appeared to side with Washington and called for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus. But this has led to a damaging slide in relations with Beijing.

The government's call for an inquiry appeared to be directed at Beijing, particularly as it was announced by the Foreign Minister, Ms Marise Payne, in an interview in which she refused to say whether she trusted China. In addition, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, consulted with US President Donald Trump about the inquiry, and the leaders of France and Germany, but is not believed to have reached out to Beijing.

However, Mr Morrison insisted that the inquiry was "not pursued as an act of criticism" and was purely aimed at improving global public health.

But China viewed the call differently, claiming it was an attempt to humiliate Beijing. China's Ambassador to Australia, Mr Cheng Jingye, accused Canberra of pandering to Washington and of "hyping up the blame game".

He wenton to say that Australia's insistence on an inquiry may prompt Chinese consumers to boycott Australian wine or beef or that Chinese students and tourists could stop visiting Australia.

These comments sparked alarm in Australia, whose economy has become increasingly dependent on trade with China.

In recent days, China has suspended beef imports from several Australian abattoirs and threatened to impose hefty tariffs on Australian barley.

Beijing has denied that its moves were designed to punish Canberra over the call for an inquiry, saying it was concerned about Australian subsidies and labelling and health issues.

But most analysts say China appears to be deliberately punishing Australia.

"We have gone from consumer boycotts to no barley next year," Dr Jeffrey Wilson, from the Perth USAsia Centre, told Nine Media. "That is an extraordinary escalation. It goes well beyond what the ambassador promised."

An expert on China, Mr Richard McGregor, from the Lowy Institute in Sydney, said relations between the two countries were "shaky" and deteriorating. "Things were starting to steady a little bit before the coronavirus, but now really it has gone rapidly downhill again," he told ABC News.

Professor Hugh White, from the Australian National University, said the recent tensions between Canberra and Beijing demonstrated the difficulties Australia faced as China's power increased.

He said Mr Morrison's call for an inquiry seemed designed to please the White House but had instead demonstrated that Australia should not allow its China policy "to be dictated from Washington".

"We need to wake up to the new realities of power in Asia and learn how to navigate them," he wrote in The Australian Financial Review.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on May 17, 2020, with the headline Australia in a bind after calls to probe origins of outbreak. Subscribe