By Kirsty Needham
SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australia has asked the Chinese ambassador to explain his “threats of economic coercion” in response to Canberra’s push for an international inquiry into the source and spread of the coronavirus.
Australia’s call for a probe into the pandemic, which originated in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December, has angered China, its largest trading partner, following a couple of years of diplomatic tension.
Cheng Jingye, Beijing’s ambassador to Australia, told a newspaper on Monday that Chinese consumers could boycott Australian beef, wine, tourism and universities in response.
Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham said Australia was a “crucial supplier” to China and that Australia’s resources and energy helped power much of China’s manufacturing growth and construction.
He said Cheng had been called by the secretary of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade to explain his comments.
“Australia is no more going to change our policy position on major public health issues because of economic coercion, or threats of economic coercion, than we would change our policy position in matters of national security,” Birmingham said on ABC radio.
The Chinese embassy published a summary of the conversation on its website, which said Cheng had “flatly rejected the concern expressed from the Australian side”.
Cheng also said “the fact cannot be buried that the proposal is a political manoeuvre,” according to the statement, which added that Australia was “crying up wine and selling vinegar” when it said the proposed review would not target China.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang denied the ambassador’s comments amounted to “economic coercion”.
“The Chinese ambassador to Australia is talking about the concerns of the Chinese people, who … disapprove of certain wrong actions by Australia lately,” Geng told reporters in Beijing.
Birmingham told Sky News the Australian “government’s displeasure was made known” in the phone call.
China accounts for 26% of Australia’s total trade, worth around A$235 billion ($150 billion) in 2018/19, and is the biggest single market for Australian exports such as coal, iron ore, wine, beef, tourism and education.
Birmingham said Australia wanted to maintain a positive relationship with China, but would also seek other opportunities in places such as India and the European Union. Trade with the European Union was worth A$114.3 billion and India A$30.3 billion in 2018/19.
Even amid escalating diplomatic tensions in 2018/19, when Australia introduced foreign interference laws perceived to be aimed at China, two-way trade with China grew by 20%.
“China needs us. Let’s not forget that. Many of the critical imports to Chinese industry, like iron ore, coal, and gas come from Australia,” James Paterson, a member of the ruling Liberal Party, told Sky News.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham, additional reporting by Cate Cadell in Beijing; editing by Jane Wardell and Nick Macfie)