Australian prime minister Scott Morrison at Parliament House in Canberra earlier this month
Australian prime minister Scott Morrison said an inquiry into a virus that had caused more than 200,000 deaths was ‘entirely reasonable’ © Mark Graham/Bloomberg

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Australia will continue campaigning for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus outbreak despite a furious reaction from Beijing, which has accused Canberra of teaming up with Washington to mount “a political campaign” against China.

Scott Morrison, Australia’s prime minister, said on Wednesday that his government wanted an independent inquiry into the Covid-19 outbreak, which he said was in the interests of the wider international community.

The diplomatic skirmish between Beijing and Canberra comes as tensions grow between China and western nations, which are concerned Beijing is mounting a “global disinformation campaign” to sow division and make strategic gains.

Analysts said China’s aggressive reaction also served as a reminder of Beijing’s sensitivity over its role in the outbreak — and its willingness to bully its trading partners.

Last week, China complained to the EU three times and warned that bilateral relations would deteriorate if a report citing Beijing’s use of “overt and covert tactics” to avoid blame for the pandemic was published.

This week, Beijing warned that Chinese consumers might boycott Australian products.

Mr Morrison, however, was undeterred. “This is a virus that has taken more than 200,000 lives across the world. It has shut down the global economy,” he said.

“Now it would seem entirely reasonable and sensible that the world would want to have an independent assessment of how all this occurred, so we can learn the lessons and prevent it from happening again.”

Diplomatic relations between Canberra and Beijing have been fraying since 2017 when Australia passed a foreign influence law in response to a scandal involving donations by a Chinese businessman to an MP.

Following Mr Morrison’s call for a coronavirus inquiry, the Global Times — a state-owned newspaper — accused Canberra of leading a “panda-bashing campaign” and becoming a “chess piece” of Washington.

Richard McGregor, an analyst at the Lowy Institute, said: “Relations are bad and getting worse. We’ve gone almost four years with our most important trading partner without any genuine top-level dialogue and that is pretty worrying.”

He said Canberra’s call for an inquiry into the origins of the virus were worthy but it was puzzling that it had failed to rally support from like-minded nations before embarking on its campaign.

Beijing’s response has been vitriolic. Cheng Jingye, China’s ambassador to Australia, accused Canberra of “obviously teaming up with those forces in Washington to launch a political campaign against China”.

He warned that Chinese people were “frustrated, dismayed and disappointed” at Australia. Tourists and students may have second thoughts about travelling to the nation, where one in 10 university students are Chinese, and consumers might wonder “why they should drink Australian wine or eat Australian beef”.

His comments earned a rebuke from Canberra, which accused Beijing of “economic coercion”. The Chinese embassy responded by leaking the details of a call between Mr Cheng and Australia’s top Foreign Office official. It said Canberra was guilty of ideological bias and playing political games.

The rift between Canberra and Beijing is alarming business, which is experiencing the worst economic conditions since the Great Depression due to the coronavirus crisis and can ill-afford a Chinese boycott.

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Mark Allison, managing director of Elders, a farm supply business, told the Australian Financial Review the government should focus on economic recovery, rather than getting involved in an international blame game involving China

But analysts said Australia’s longstanding position of not having to choose between its strategic ally Washington and its biggest trading partner China was growing more difficult to maintain.

“Now we have a China which is very powerful indeed, which is becoming more ambitious, which is unambiguously a strategic rival of our primary ally, which is seeking to reorder the geopolitics of Asia in its favour in ways that we find deeply uncomfortable,” said Hugh White, professor at Australian National University. “We are slowly waking up to that.”

Mark Delaney, deputy chief executive and chief investment officer of AustralianSuper, Australia’s largest pension fund with A$175bn in assets, said geopolitical tensions would have an impact on the Australian economy.

“Australia quite nimbly didn’t make a choice between the US and China for many years. But as the world is becoming more regionalised, it is being forced to make a choice,” he told the Financial Times. “That will probably have an economic cost, at some stage.”

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