One of China’s most senior diplomats has refused to say the coronavirus pandemic originated in Wuhan, while accusing the Australian Government of damaging the relationship between the two countries with calls for an independent investigation into the virus.
- China’s deputy head of mission said Australian calls for an investigation into COVID-19 “hurt the feelings” of China
- He said while the virus was first recorded in Wuhan, it might not have come from there
- Trade tensions between the countries have soured significantly over the past six months.
Wang Xining, the deputy head of mission at China’s embassy in Australia, gave a rare address at the National Press Club in Canberra, where he said Australia’s focus on determining the origins of the virus had damaged international relations.
“All of a sudden, they heard this shocking news of a proposal coming from Australia, which is supposed to be a good friend of China.”
Australia was one of the first countries to push for an international investigation into the origins of the virus.
The World Health Assembly, the governing body of the World Health Organization, eventually adopted a European Union resolution, co-sponsored by both Australia and China, calling for a “comprehensive, independent and impartial” investigation.
But Mr Wang said China believed Australia’s early push was unfair, because it had been advanced on the presumption that Wuhan was the source of the virus.
“We believe this proposal was targeted against China alone, because during that time Australian ministers claimed that the virus originated from Wuhan, from China, and they did not pinpoint any other places as a possible source,” he said.
“We don’t think it was fair.”
Asked to clarify, Mr Wang acknowledged the Chinese city was the first place to record a cluster of the virus, but withstood suggestions that meant the virus came from Wuhan.
“I think it’s up to the scientists to find out the origin and also how it’s been dealt with by different governments,” he said.
In April, China’s ambassador Cheng Jingye warned that if Australia pressed ahead with calls for an international inquiry into COVID-19, Chinese people might boycott Australian wine and beef.
Last week China announced an investigation into whether Australia has been unfairly dumping wine in the Chinese market.
China has already imposed restrictions on Australian barley, and on beef from four major abattoirs, as relations between the two countries have cooled.
The senior diplomat had the chance to sample such goods on Wednesday, with the National Press Club’s menu featuring ingredients targeted in the trade dispute.
On Tuesday, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg revealed he did not believe the $600 million sale of Lion Dairy and Drinks to China’s Mengniu Dairy was in the national interest, after the deal was abandoned.
Hungry Jack’s and Chinese dumplings
Australian ministers have repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to contact their Chinese counterparts by phone to discuss the trade issues.
Mr Wang blamed the radio silence on the pandemic, saying it was difficult to set up face-to-face meetings.
But Liberal MP Dave Sharma, himself a former diplomat, described Mr Wang’s assurances that diplomatic communication had not been cut off as “lacking in authenticity”.
“He said he also seeks an open and constructive relationship with China,” Mr Sharma said.
“Well, the first basis for doing that has always been having open channels of dialogue.
“Australia’s been quite upfront, our ministers and others, that we continue to seek those.”
Labor’s Foreign Affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong said while Australia’s push for an independent investigation into the virus was reasonable, the Government had bungled the announcement of it.
She said it would not have hurt to give China advance warning of the Government’s position.
“I can’t see why that would have been a particularly problematic issue as long as we were clear about what we were doing,” Senator Wong said.
“Making sure you flag these things isn’t a bad idea.”
He used his speech to set out his hopes for further cooperation between China and Australia, while insisting each should not interfere with the other’s internal affairs.