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China-Australia Trade War Looms Over COVID-19 Investigation

Frozen beef filets from Australia, United States, and Canada are on sale at a supermarket in Beijing, China, May 14, 2019.
Frozen beef filets from Australia, United States, and Canada are on sale at a supermarket in Beijing, China, May 14, 2019.

China's sudden decision to ban Australian meat from four major suppliers is being seen as retaliation for Canberra’s push for a global investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is thought to have started at an animal market in the Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.

China has indicated it will impose an 80 percent tariff on Australian barley exports. It has also banned red meat from four Australian suppliers that control more than a third of the country’s exports to China.

Opposition politicians and academics believe the moves are payback for Australia’s call for an international inquiry into the COVID-19 crisis. Last month, China's ambassador to Australia threatened a consumer backlash against Australian exports because of Canberra’s attempt to garner global support for a probe into the origins of the new coronavirus.

But authorities in Beijing this week asserted that Australian agricultural exporters have violated quarantine regulations, as well as other health and labeling issues.

Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham also believes the suspension of meat exports is not linked to the call for a COVID-19 investigation.

“Chinese officials both publicly and privately are adamant that these are unconnected and so it is in the best interests of our farmers and exporters for us to treat these issues all on their merits, and certainly from our policy perspective these are completely unconnected issues," he said. " Quite transparently an investigation around the handling of COVID-19 has no relationship whatsoever to Australian exports of beef or barley.”

While supporting a call for a COVID-19 investigation, opposition politicians in Australia believe the government has mismanaged its relationship with China, its biggest trading partner. There is a feeling that Canberra should have quietly sought backing for any global inquiry rather than antagonizing China with public pronouncements. Australia’s three main export industries; mining, tourism, and education have been dominated by the Chinese.

Beijing criticized Australia for banning all flights from mainland China at the start of February in response to the growing coronavirus threat. The bilateral relationship was under strain well before then over allegations of Chinese meddling in Australia’s domestic politics and claims of cyber espionage and theft.

There are fears that a trade war over the origins of COVID-19 could damage Australian agriculture at a time when parts of the economy have collapsed because of the pandemic.