Beijing continues to punish Australia, hobble WHO to prevent independent COVID-19 investigation

Foreign Affairs

China is heightening its barriers to Australian imports in a pressure campaign that began in April, after Australia started to call for an inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. Meanwhile, Beijing is working to limit the independence of an expected WHO-led team.

President of the Western Australian Farmers Federation and mixed grains farmer Rhys Turton poses for a photograph holding barley seeds in his fields on May 19, 2020. China has imposed an 80% tariff on Australian barley. AAP Image/Richard Wainwright via REUTERS.

In early April, as Wuhan was on the brink of emerging from its long lockdown and China as a whole appeared to have largely contained the spread of COVID-19, Beijing published an official narrative about its response to the virus. That timeline was sanitized, starting later than credible media reports say that signs of trouble emerged in Wuhan, and omitting major missteps between late December and mid-January — but Beijing later doubled down, updating the timeline and insisting its response was entirely timely and transparent (it was not).

At around the same time, Australia began to call for the World Health Organization to “send a team of investigators into” China to determine the origins of COVID-19.

  • The call for an independent investigation led by foreign experts raised hackles in Beijing: The Chinese ambassador to Australia called the idea “dangerous” and threatened economic retaliation.
  • Australia did not let up in its calls for an international inquiry, and China followed through on its economic punishments, blocking imports of Australian beef and threatening tariffs on barley.
  • China has repeatedly ratcheted up the pressure on Australia in more recent months, targeting Australian imports of beef, barley, cotton, coal, and wine worth up to $19 billion a year.

The punishment of Australia continues: China has “rejected Australia’s appeal to scrap a tariff on its barley exports,” Reuters reports, and also imposed new customs inspections on Australian lobster.

  • “Chinese importers are also bracing for a new round of bans on copper ore and copper concentrate as well as sugar this week,” the South China Morning Post reports.
  • At a Chinese foreign ministry press briefing today, a reporter remarked, “it’s quite hard not to see this as some form of retribution,” and China’s spokesperson did not exactly deny it:

China conducts friendly cooperation with other countries based on mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit…We hope Australia can do more things conducive to mutual trust, bilateral cooperation and the spirit of China-Australia comprehensive strategic partnership, and bring the bilateral relations back to the right track as early as possible.

WHO severely limited in China

“The prospect of an apolitical inquiry into the virus’s origins is dwindling,” the New York Times reports today, with insights into the World Health Organization’s struggles to negotiate with Beijing:

Internal documents and interviews with more than 50 public-health officials, scientists and diplomats provide an inside look at how a disempowered World Health Organization, eager to win access and cooperation from China, has struggled to achieve either…

China has extracted concessions from the health organization that have helped the country delay important research and spared its government a potentially embarrassing review of its early response to the outbreak.

“Unfortunately, this has become a political investigation,” said Wang Linfa, an Australian virologist in Singapore who helped identify bats as the hosts of the first SARS coronavirus. “Whatever they do is symbolic.”

An investigation of the virus origins will occur, though the next phase of it “will be led by Chinese scientists, with outsiders reviewing their work remotely,” the NYT reports. And though a virtual meeting was held a few days ago to launch the investigation, a date for a ground tour of Wuhan has still not been set, the SCMP says.