Australia has gained significant support for its independent coronavirus inquiry but there are concerns about the “revenge” China will take.
Australia’s draft resolution will be considered at a virtual World Health Assembly meeting on Monday night, with the backing of more than 100 countries including Russia, Indonesia, India, Japan, Britain, Canada, New Zealand and all 27 European Union member states.
The draft resolution is a compromise from the initial motion but still calls for an impartial, independent and comprehensive evaluation of the international response to the pandemic.
Neither motion mentioned China and the new motion does not push for an investigation into the origin of the disease. It would also be done by an independent committee within the World Health Organisation (WHO), not by a separate entity.
Liberal senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells criticised the motion this morning as being “considerably watered down”.
“Just from a cursory reading doesn’t appear to even have a reference to China,” she said.
“The push for an inquiry into the origins of the virus is commendable. But the reality is that China will do everything in its power to avoid scrutiny.”
Australia’s push for the inquiry angered Beijing and it has since blocked some beef imports and is threatening to put a large tariff on barley.
China also appears to be ignoring calls from Australia, with Trade Minister Simon Birmingham saying on Sunday he not received a return call from his opposite number.
“We’ve made a request for me to be able to have discussions with my Chinese counterpart,” Mr Birmingham told ABC’s Insiders on Sunday.
Mr Birmingham said he could understand, given unhelpful remarks, such as those made by Chinese ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye a few weeks ago, why people would be drawing links between Australia’s push for a COVID-19 inquiry and China’s decisions.
“Ultimately, Chinese authorities have responded to those questions and they’ve been clear that, in relation to the barley matter, in relation to the beef matter, these are longstanding issues, and that they are regulatory trade matters in the way in which they’re handling them,” Mr Birmingham said.
“So we take that at face value and we are engaging and responding in good faith.”
National Farmers’ Federation president Fiona Simpson has pointed out the investigation into barley dumping had been in place for 18 months, while the issue with beef is a technicality around labelling.
But she said farmers are worried because these are tricky issues to work through, particularly when it is not possible to jump on a plane and have face-to-face meetings.
She said China is a big market for Australian farmers, not just for beef and barley, but also for other commodities such as wool and cotton.
The relationship between the countries has been rocky since 2018 when Australia blocked Chinese-owned tech company Huawei from rolling out a new 5G network, citing security concerns.
Last year, China suspended imports of Australian coal after Australia’s government rescinded a visa for a prominent Chinese businessman.
Tensions have also flared over concern over Chinese political influence.
Zhao Lijian, a spokesperson for China’s foreign ministry, said the suspension on the beef imports was simply to protect consumers after the Australian companies “violated the inspection and quarantine requirements”.
WHAT IS CHINA DOING?
Beijing blocked imports of Australian beef from four abattoirs after Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government, endorsed by Washington, called for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus.
The move is the first time Beijing has used access to its huge markets as leverage in its campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak.
But it has used the tactic regularly against governments from Norway to Canada in political disputes over the past decade.
“What China is really doing is sending a political shot across the bows,” think tank Australian Strategic Policy Institute executive director Peter Jennings, the executive director told AP.
“They’re saying to Australia: ‘Don’t make a fuss about an open and independent investigation.”’
China has too much at stake to destroy its trading relationship with Australia entirely, Mr Jennings said, and has left alone its biggest Australian imports like iron ore and coal because it needs a reliable supplier.
Chinese officials routinely refuse to confirm a trade disruption is related to a political clash but make it clear Beijing wants concessions.
Last year, Beijing blocked imports of canola as it stepped up pressure for Canada to release a Huawei executive who was detained on US charges.
The Chinese government said it found pests in Canadian shipments, which the suppliers said was unlikely.
China began blocking imports of Philippine bananas in 2012 in a dispute over territory in the South China Sea.
Beijing lifted import curbs only after Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte launched a diplomatic campaign to increase trade, political and investment ties with China.
And in 2010, China blocked imports of Norwegian salmon and cancelled trade talks after dissident Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize by an independent committee appointed by Norway’s parliament.
But even as it imposes sanctions on certain Australian goods, China has been buying more of others as its factories swing back into action following lockdowns.
Mr Jennings said the bump may only be temporary and the real threat to Australian exports could come from a prolonged global recession.
AUSTRALIA IS ‘PROLIFIC’ USER OF ANTI-DUMPING MEASURES
The barley dispute is the first time China has used anti-dumping provisions against Australia but Australia has used these provisions against China many times.
The Productivity Commission noted that Australia was one of the most prolific users of anti-dumping measures in the world.
Australia has imposed tariffs of up to 144 per cent on Chinese steel. It has also imposed tariffs on steel from India, South Korea, Vietnam, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Greece and Spain.
In making anti-dumping decisions, Mr Birmingham said Australia looks at is whether or not a product has been subsidised unduly in its production in the country where it’s coming from, or if it is being dropped in the Australian market at prices below that normal cost of trade in that home country.
Mr Birmingham said Australia had a transparent anti-dumping system in place and there were public inquiries, adding that any countries could take Australia to the World Trade Organisation over the steel tariff if they wanted to.
In fact if China goes ahead with the barley tariff, Mr Birmingham said Australia may take the dispute to the WTO, adding that Australia has been involved with WTO disputes with other valued partners.
“I’ve initiated them with Canada in relation to certain wine practices, with India in relation to certain sugar industry practices,” Mr Birmingham said.
Indonesia recently won a challenge against Australia in the WTO for an anti-dumping decision on a paper-based product.
“They won on some points, we won on others, and we will respond and rectify those issues because we operate according to the global rule book, and that’s the way we play it,” Mr Birmingham said.
He said Australia’s case against China’s threat to impose a tariff on barley was based on refuting claims that the industry was being subsidised.
“The idea that somehow the payments that the Australian Government makes to upgrade irrigation infrastructure in the Murray-Darling Basin in any way impacts on barley prices in China, just doesn’t stand the test of any analysis,” he said.
“Our barley that goes to China is largely a product of dry land irrigation, predominantly coming out of Western Australia and the west coast of South Australia. It’s not coming out of the irrigated areas of the Murray-Darling Basin.”
He said the dispute had been ongoing for about 18 months.
“Our view is that, very clearly, Australian barley lands in China at commercially competitive prices, based entirely on market factors,” he said.
“That there’s no subsidy involved, there’s no dumping involved. This is simply a commercial farming operation getting on with business and there’s no justification for duties to be applied on any of our barley products.”
AUSTRALIA IS NOT BACKING DOWN
Despite the pressure from China, Australia is not backing down, although its motion now does not call for an investigation into the origins of the virus.
“We are standing our ground on our values and the things that we know are always important,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters Friday.
He said Australia draws clear lines on certain issues “and those things are not to be traded, ever”.
Mr Morrison has described the push for an inquiry into the origins of coronavirus as completely unremarkable.
However, the resolution being put to the World Health Assembly and backed by more than 60 countries, spares China from an investigation into the origin of the disease.
According to The Times, the UK threw its weight behind a compromise move that officials say is a “first step” towards a wider review.
The initial motion put forward by the EU and Australia called for the World Health Organisation (WHO) and World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) to conduct “scientific and collaborative field missions” and “identify the zoonotic source of the virus and the route of introduction to the human population, including the possible role of intermediate hosts”.
The new compromise motion now asks for WHO to “continue to work closely” with the OIE and other organisations to identify the source of the virus.
It asks for an independent evaluation to review the “experience gained and lessons learned” from the WHO-coordinated international health response to COVID-19 including the effectiveness of mechanisms at WHO’s disposal. It also asks for recommendations to improve the global pandemic response.
An editorial about the inquiry in China’s Global Times on Sunday called on all countries “not to be held hostage by Washington’s plot”.
China has previously accused Prime Minister Scott Morrison of being a proxy for US President Donald Trump, who claimed last month he had seen evidence COVID-19 originated from China’s Wuhan Institute of Virology.
“A scientific investigation should be carried out,” the editorial said.
“But first of all, it should be led by WHO rather than any country or regional organisation. “Second, the investigation needs to be scientific and fair. Not only China-related factors, but also those related to the US and other countries need to be included.”
The editorial said China would not oppose scientific research into the virus’ origin, “because it is a necessary move to fight COVID-19 in a scientific way and conducive to prevention measures and development of vaccines and medicines”.
“The proposal that will eventually be adopted by the assembly will not be one that only meets US requests,” it said.
“No matter where the virus originated, the challenge is for all people around the world.
“The international community should be vigilant and reject the US attempt to politicise the investigation and create new disputes.”
AMP Capital chief economist Shane Oliver says such issues with Australia’s number one trading partner have flared up before, “only to flare down again before they spread”.
“Hopefully the same happens this time around … because so far, our exports appear to be benefiting from the recovery in the Chinese economy,” Dr Oliver said in a note to clients.
— With AP and AAP