Australia and China clash over independent inquiry into coronavirus pandemic

Australia has refused to back down on calls for an independent investigation into the coronavirus pandemic despite China sternly rejecting the proposal.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media at Parliament House.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media at Parliament House. Source: AAP

Prime Minister Scott Morrison insists Australia remains committed to an independent investigation into the spread and origins of the coronavirus pandemic, despite China's dismissal of the prospect.

Beijing has sternly rejected Foreign Minister Marise Payne's calls for the inquiry, labelling the basis of such a review as groundless.

Senator Payne announced the push for the investigation on Sunday, revealing her level of concern about transparency from China is at a high point. 

In response, Beijing foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said Senator Payne’s remarks were without factual basis.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison talks to reporters.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison says it's too early to tell what the health impacts are of easing restrictions. Source: AAP

But Mr Morrison said Australia's position was unchanged, describing it as a "difference of view".

"It’s not pursued as an issue of criticism, it’s pursued as an issue of importance for public health," he said. 

“This is important regardless of where a virus may break out - if it happened in Australia, if it happened in China, if it happened in parts of Africa or the Pacific or the Middle East or wherever it would happen to be."

He said it was critical all countries cooperated in such an independent inquiry.

“It’s important for public health globally that there is a transparency in the way you get access to this information early,” he said.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang speaks at a press briefing.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang speaks at a press briefing. Source: AAP

China has been accused of a lack of transparency and faced growing scepticism over its official death toll since the coronavirus was found late last year in its city of Wuhan. 

Since then, the virus has caused nearly 2.4 million infections and more than 160,000 deaths worldwide, paralysing life and business in major cities.

But China’s foreign ministry spokesperson Mr Shuang strongly dismissed concerns over transparency when asked about Australia’s push for the independent inquiry.

“Australia’s Foreign Minister Payne’s remarks are not based on facts. China is seriously concerned about and firmly opposed to this,” he told reporters. 

He added that questioning of China’s transparency was unfounded and showed a lack of respect for the sacrifices of its people.

“Since the outbreak began, China has always acted in an open, transparent and responsible manner and taken a series of resolute, timely and forceful measures,” he said. 

Senator Payne had cited that transparency must be at the heart of an independent review into the COVID-19 outbreak. 

"Transparency from China most certainly. Transparency from all of the key countries across the world who will be part of any review that takes place," she told the ABC's Insiders on Sunday. 

Labor's Foreign Affairs spokesperson Penny Wong has also backed the government's calls.

'Australia joins US bandwagon over virus policy'

But Australia’s push for the inquiry has drawn the ire of the Chinese propaganda arm, the Global Times news outlet.

In an opinion piece, author Wang Wenwen accused Australia of being a “petty follower” of the United States and of joining the “US bandwagon over virus policy”.

“Australian politicians are engineering a divorce from China in the context of US policy objectives,” he wrote. 

US President Donald Trump has been a harsh critic of China’s response to the outbreak saying the nation should face “consequences” if it was knowingly responsible for the pandemic. 

SBS Tigrinya News
United States President Donald J. Trump delivers remarks during a news conference in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington D.C., Source: ABACA

The Australian Strategic Policy Institute's analyst Alex Joske said concerns over Beijing’s lack of transparency in handling the virus and the need for an independent inquiry were “totally justified”.

He said this includes questions over when the Chinese government found out about the virus and whether it took too long to act, including identifying the risks posed by human-to-human transmission.

 “The Chinese government isn’t going to be fully transparent about its mishandling of the response,” he told SBS News.   

“There are a lot of reasons to be suspicious of the Chinese government’s claims about the virus … so this lack of trust, these tensions, aren’t going to naturally dissipate."

He warned the defensive reaction of China to Australia's proposal was symptomatic of a “low-trust” relationship and resistance to scrutiny of its handling of the outbreak. 

“The idea that the Chinese government isn’t being transparent or hasn’t handled some aspects of the response, really undermines this propaganda narrative,” he said. 

Beijing insists it reported the virus to the World Health Organization in a timely manner, shared its genome sequence, and cooperated with international partners to prevent the pandemic.

“Any doubt about China’s transparency is not only inconsistent with the facts, but also disrespectful of the tremendous efforts and sacrifice of the Chinese people,” foreign ministry spokesperson Mr Shuang said. 

But the Australia-China Relations Institute’s Professor James Laurenceson agreed “a lack of transparency” is a legitimate concern for Australia.

He cited a cover-up by local Chinese authorities of whistleblowers early in the outbreak, but also said any review of the pandemic needs to be done in a global context.

“Simply blaming the whole thing on China, that’s not being fair, but raising concerns about transparency in the beginning, that’s absolutely legitimate,” he said. 

Trade Minister Simon Birmingham has also warned Australia must separate concerns over China’s handling of the coronavirus crisis from its economic relationship. 

Mr Laurenceson said the coronavirus would not change the critical nature of economic ties between China and Australia. 

“The virus doesn’t change that, so it’s absolutely going to continue to be a vital relationship that will help Australia get out of this economic hole we are currently in,” he said.

China’s National Health Commission has reported some 82,747 coronavirus cases, while the death toll stands at 4,632.

The role of the World Health Organization has also been identified as another factor that could be put under scrutiny through an independent inquiry.

People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.

If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.

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

With Reuters

6 min read
Published 21 April 2020 at 3:58pm
By Tom Stayner