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Demand for inquiry into source of novel coronavirus pandemic endorsed by 62 countries

Trade minister Simon Birmingham Source: Getty Images

Australia's push for an investigation into the source of the COVID-19 virus has caused its relationship with China to plummet to new lows. With major trade tensions over beef and barley exports exposed, Trade Minister Simon Birmingham has revealed his Chinese counterpart won't return his calls.

The Morrison Government has gained some crucial support for its inquiry push, ahead of a crucial World Health Organisation meeting.

As the COVID-19 death toll continues to mount with frightening speed around the world,  China has become increasingly sensitive about questions surrounding the outbreak's origin. Under fire for his own handling of the pandemic, United States President Donald Trump has been keen to focus the blame on its source.

His administration is stoking theories the virus was manufactured in a Wuhan laboratory, rather than the common held view that it came from the city's wet markets. When Australia responded with calls for an independent inquiry, China was furious.

Its ambassador to Australia branded the push dangerous and politically motivated at the urging of the Trump administration. Ambassador Cheng Jingye used an interview with the Australian Financial Review in April to warn there could be repercussions.

The ambassador was quick to deny any suggestions of a boycott. But this week, China delivered a worrying move for our farmers: a ban on beef exports from four major abattoirs and a threat to put big tariffs on barley exports after an anti-dumping investigation.

Trade Minister Simon Birmingham denies any links to the push for a COVID-19 investigation, citing long-standing regulatory matters. Nonetheless, Senator Birmingham has told the A-B-C's Insiders program he's having trouble getting answers from Chinese officials.

According to Senator Birmingham,  Australian trade officials have lodged a comprehensive rebuttal of the barley dumping claims with China's government.

Hans Hendrischke , professor of Chinese Business and Management at the University of Sydney's business school, believes it's wise for the minister to play down any links between the inquiry push and trade disputes.

Beyond the trade and economic issues at stake, Australia is getting some crucial international support for an independent inquiry into the coronavirus. The European Union is set to move a resolution at an online meeting tomorrow of World Health Organisation member states. Michael Shoebridge, from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, says it's a powerful intervention from the EU.

A draft resolution demanding an impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation of the international handling of the crisis has been co-sponsored by 62 countries, including India, Japan, Britain, Canada, South Korea, Russia and all 27 E-U member states.

Opposition frontbencher Chris Bowen has also thrown Labor's weight behind Australia's push for a probe into the origins of COVID-19.

It's the latest chapter in the sometimes rocky relationship between Australia and China, with both countries having previously sparred over issues such as human rights and China's territorial ambitions in the South China Sea.

But when it comes to tensions between the two key trading partners, Mr Shoebridge says it would be a mistake to consider China as having all the might in negotiations.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others. Check your state’s restrictions on gathering limits.

Testing for coronavirus is now widely available across Australia. If you are experiencing cold or flu symptoms, arrange a test by calling your doctor or contact the Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080.

The federal government's coronavirus tracing app COVIDSafe is available for download from your phone's app store.

SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus.

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