Australia says COVID-19 inquiry is 'reasonable', not targeted at any country

Australia says COVID-19 inquiry is 'reasonable', not targeted at any country

Australia street people walking masks COVID-19
Customers keep social distancing while waiting in line to pay for their groceries in the Burwood suburb of Sydney on Apr 14, 2020. (Photo: AFP/Saeed Khan) 

SYDNEY: Australia's calls for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19 is "reasonable" and not targeted at any specific country, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Wednesday (Apr 29). 

Australian-Chinese bilateral relations have soured in recent weeks after Morrison called for the inquiry into the origins of novel coronavirus.

READ: China envoy threatens Australia boycott over virus inquest demand

Morrison insisted his call was not an attempt to criticise China and while Canberra's largest trading partner may feel slighted, Australia would continue to press for the review.

The novel coronavirus is believed to have originated in China late last year and has infected more than 3 million people worldwide.

"What Australia is pursuing is not targeted," Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

"This is a virus that has taken more than 200,000 lives across the world. It has shut down the global economy. The implications and impacts of this are extraordinary. Now, it would seem entirely reasonable and sensible that the world would want to have an independent assessment."

READ: Australia says all WHO members should participate in COVID-19 inquiry

Australian government ministers have repeatedly accused China of 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.

PUSH FOR INQUEST "DANGEROUS": CHINA AMBASSADOR

Cheng in a recent interview said that demands for a probe into the spread of COVID-19 could lead to a consumer boycott of Aussie wine or trips Down Under.

He also warned 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 claimed in an interview with the Australian Financial Review. 

READ: Bondi Beach to reopen for surfing as Australia's COVID-19 cases slow

"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," he added.

"It is up to the people to decide. Maybe the ordinary people will say 'Why should we drink Australian wine? Eat Australian beef?'"

Cheng also threatened 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 that they find is not so friendly, even hostile, whether this is the best place to send their kids," he said.

Morrison last week said that all members of the World Health Organization (WHO) should cooperate with the proposed independent review, saying that all members should be obliged to participate. 

"If you're going to be a member of a club like the World Health Organization, there should be responsibilities and obligations attached to that," Morrison told reporters in Canberra.

"We'd like the world to be safer when it comes to viruses ... I would hope that any other nation, be it China or anyone else, would share that objective."

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