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How Scott Morrison sparked a new war with China

May 1, 2020 • 15m 43s

Scott Morrison’s push for an inquiry into the coronavirus outbreak has further strained Australia’s relationship with China. The Chinese government has expressed concern and threatened retaliation. Today, Paul Bongiorno on a new low in Chinese–Australian relations.

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How Scott Morrison sparked a new war with China

214 • May 1, 2020

How Scott Morrison sparked a new war with China

RUBY:

From Schwartz Media, I’m Ruby Jones, this is 7am.

Australia’s relationship with China has become more strained than ever, as Scott Morrison pushes for an international inquiry into the coronavirus outbreak.

The Chinese government has expressed concern that such an inquiry would be political - and has threatened retaliation.

Today: Paul Bongiorno on a new low in Chinese-Australian relations.


RUBY:

Paul, who is Frances Adamson?

PAUL:

Well, Ruby, Frances Adamson is a Sino expert. She was a very respected former ambassador to Taiwan and then China. She came back from that posting and was made international advisor to Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull when he was trying to heal his relationship with Beijing. Turnbull then appointed her as the head of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, and she's the first woman to ever hold the post.

RUBY:

Paul Bongiorno is a columnist for The Saturday Paper.

PAUL:

Adamson is in the news after details of a phone conversation she had with China's ambassador to Australia. Ginger Sheng were published in a statement released by the Chinese embassy.

Archival tape -- ABC Radio:

China has now leaked what it says are details of that conversation.

PAUL:

This is, by the way, a brazen breach of diplomatic protocol.

Archival tape -- reporter:

To have this coverage of this phone call is quite remarkable and they really took issue with what was said apparently…

PAUL:

The embassy statement details the call and is about as provocative as you get in diplomatic circles. And it's seen as a breach of good faith and in itself. Ruby, it's a real marker of just how strained relations between Australia and China have become.

RUBY:

So while taking a step back here, what triggered the phone call between the head of DFAT and the Chinese ambassador, which has led to this diplomatic spat?

PAUL:

Well, Ruby, I'm afraid it's more than a diplomatic spat. And the phone call actually can be summed up in one word from the Australian side, and that is panic.

The background to all of this is a suggestion from the Australian government that there should be an independent international inquiry into the Corona virus pandemic and by extension, China's role as the source of its outbreak.

Well, China hates this idea, mainly because it sees the push in the context of President Trump's attacks on Beijing and of Australia doing his bidding.

And on Monday, The Australian Financial Review published an interview with Ambassador Jingjing in which he warned the Australian government that its highly visible pursuit of this inquiry could lead to severe retaliation.

Archival tape -- Seven News reporter:

A friendship itself being tested after China’ ambassador warned of economic payback over Australia's support for an independent inquiry into the pandemic's origins.

PAUL:

Xing said it could trigger a Chinese consumer boycott of students and tourists visiting Australia and a boycott of increasingly popular exports such as beef and wine

and Ruby. Billions of dollars would be at stake. Adamson called Cheng the same morning and in a long discussion in Mandarin, sought to calm troubled waters.

RUBY:

So, Paul, usually highly sensitive diplomatic phone calls like this are not made public. But in this case, we do know what was said because it was released by the Chinese embassy. So talk me through it.

PAUL:

Well, that's right, Ruby, the statement from the Chinese embassy. After the call said Adamson admitted her department had no detail on the proposed investigation. By the way, this is something Foreign Minister Marise Payne has also admitted publicly in a couple of TV interviews.

The Chinese statement said Adamson had tried her best to defend Australia's proposal about the independent review into the outbreak of Coronavirus, saying the proposal neither has political motive nor targets China, but rather targets the virus. The point she was making.

The embassy wasn't convinced, though, and said that no matter what excuses Australia has, the fact can't be buried that the proposal is, in China's view, a political maneuver.

Archival tape -- ABC reporter:

It quotes what it says is a Western saying, which I confess I’ve never heard before, which is to ‘cry wine and sell vinegar’, which seems to be an implication that Australia is advertising one thing namely apolitical inquiry and selling another which the embassy puts is a witch hunt into China.

PAUL:

It said Adamson admitted it was not the time to commence this review. And she also said, according to the Chinese, that Australia doesn't want the matter to have any impact on the Australia China relationship.

And Ruby, that last bit is the rub. China is Australia's biggest trading partner, and the events of this week have plunged our relationship with the country to depths not seen since formal recognition of the communist government state 48 years ago.

RUBY:

We'll be back in a moment.

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RUBY:

Well, we're talking about tension between Australia and China over the possibility of an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus outbreak. But where did this idea of an inquiry actually start?

PAUL:

Well, that's a very good question. Speculation about that the Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Foreign Minister Marise Payne have both been pushing for this. Last week, Morrison defended the idea. He said, Our purpose here is just pretty simple.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

I would think that the ability to understand what's happening in a particularly dangerous virus that has the potential to do what this virus has done to world, people would want to know this information sooner rather than later.

PAUL:

He said I'd certainly hope that any other nation, be it China or anyone else, would share that objective.

Archival tape -- Scott Morrison:

Advocating and pushing anything globally is ambitious at the best of times, but that doesn’t mean Australia shouldn't stand up for these sorts of things, for independence, for transparency, for public health, for taking action early, for sharing these sorts of information, these are important principles and Australia will stand up for them.

PAUL:

America's also pushing for an inquiry like this, though. President Trump up the ante, as it were, by announcing late last week his own investigation into not so much the virus, but into China. That's certainly the crux of our problem.

Archival tape -- Donald Trump:

We are not happy with China, we are not happy with the whole situation.

PAUL:

Fanning China's suspicion of Canberra's motives is the fact that Morrison discussed the pandemic in a phone call with President Trump on Wednesday of last week. According to a briefing note from the prime minister's office, they discussed the importance of transparency.

Archival tape -- Donald Trump:

It could have been stopped quickly and it wouldn’t have spread all over the world and we think that should have happened, so we will let you know but we are doing serious investigations.

PAUL:

Now we have to remember that Trump's inept and derelict handling of the pandemic has put him under extreme pressure in America because it's a presidential election year. The prime minister's office insists the Morrison government's inquiry proposal has nothing to do with Trump's later version.

By Wednesday this week, the prime minister and his colleagues were still defending the idea and saying it was not a remarkable position to call for an international inquiry into how the pandemic occurred and what lessons should be learnt.

And certainly at face value, you'd have to say that's the case. The Minister for Trade and Investment, Simon Birmingham, though, told the ABC that Australia wouldn't be coerced out of pushing for such an inquiry.

Archival tape -- Simon Birmingham:

Australia is no more going to change our policy position on a major public health issue because of economic coercion or threats of economic coercion than we would in matters for national security.

RUBY:

So, Paul, aside from Australia and the US, is there much support for an inquiry like this?

PAUL:

Well, Ruby, according to the prime minister's office, Morison's have been calling world leaders about the need for an inquiry. They say his chats with leaders in Europe and in Asia found sympathy for the idea, but reluctance to act on it while they were all in the midst of the crisis. And that was certainly the message that France's Emmanuel Macron gave the prime minister.

And, in fact, Ruby in Australian diplomatic circles. Many say it's strange that the government has gone public with the idea of this inquiry before support for it's been built behind the scenes.

RUBY:

And so, Paul, given Australia's strong economic relationship with China, what has the reaction of the business community here been?

PAUL:

Look, the stakes really couldn't be higher for Canberra, business leaders and exporters are privately furious at the government's bumbling diplomatic performance. Publicly, they're urging a more restrained and pragmatic approach.

On Wednesday, mining billionaire Andrew Twiggy Forrest told ABC Radio that Australia can't afford to have only one best friend.

Archival tape -- Andrew Twiggy Forrest:

Australia needs to walk that line where we can have a best friend in America, we can have a best friend in China, we can have best friend across Southeast Asia, we do not choose our best friends because we are a small country and we need to have great relationships with them all.

PAUL:

Forrest is not alone in being very nervous about the government's handling of the whole relationship between Australia and China. And not surprisingly, I mean, our exports to China are just so huge. They grew last year by 26 per cent to $153 billion. And to get a context for this, consider that our biggest or our next biggest trading partner is Japan. It purchased last year just $61 billion of Australian goods and services, not even half of what China buys. Forrest says he can see the reasoning for an inquiry, but he can't see the rush. He says it must not be a China inquiry, as that would make it instantly political. It should be a virus inquiry.

Archival tape -- Andrew Twiggy Forrest:

Sure, have an inquiry, but lets do it after the US elections because there's a bloke in the White House who wants to stay there, and he's pushing blame as far as he possibly can from anywhere else but himself. And I don’t think this should be politically orientated.

RUBY:

So from China's point of view, this inquiry is Australia siding with Trump against them.

PAUL:

Well, absolutely. Earlier a week or so ago, when Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton called for China to be more transparent. The embassy in Canberra accused him of parroting America's propaganda.

In its latest statement, the Chinese embassy called on Australia to put aside ideological bias, stop political games and do more things to promote the bilateral relations and Ruby in diplomatic circles. That's about as blunt as it comes.

RUBY:

So, Paul, why is Scott Morrison pushing for this against all of these objections and this risk to trade?

PAUL:

Well, Morrison is right when he says trying to get to the bottom of the pandemic is common sense. He's also tapped into strong anti-Chinese government sentiment, which is being fanned by outspoken China hawks in his own ranks.

We must always remember, Morrison is first and foremost a calculating politician, always with his eye on the next election and building electoral momentum and advantage. And he's also trying to repair the damage he may have done in the public eye with his handling of the bushfires.

RUBY:

And what does it mean for Frances Adamson?

PAUL:

Well, I've got to say, Ruby, it means that Ms. Adamson has been seen doing her job as our top diplomat, but no doubt she'll be very wary of how she handles future formal phone calls with the Chinese ambassador.

RUBY:

Paul Bongiorno, thanks so much for your time today.

PAUL:

Thank you. Ruby, bye.

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RUBY:

Also in the news...

The ACT has become the first jurisdiction in Australia to record no known active cases of Covid-19, after the last patients recovered overnight.

The Northern Territory has not recorded a new case of coronavirus since April 19, although it still has four active cases.

The Territory’s Chief Minister Michael Gunner has announced that restrictions will be relaxed in mid-may

**

Government figures released yesterday revealed that more than 1.3 million people were receiving JobSeeker payments, an increase of 450,000 people in less than one month.

A further 300,000 JobSeeker claims are still yet to be processed.

Department officials expect about 1.7 million people will be receiving the payment by September.

**

And a report by the federal environment department has found a company part-owned by Energy Minister Angus Taylor, illegally poisoned critically endangered grasslands in NSW.

The department has ordered the company to submit a plan within three months that aims to restore the 103 hectares of native grassland.

A spokesperson for the energy minister said he “has no direct or controlling interest in the company.”

7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper.

It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem.

Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas.

Brian Campeau mixes the show.

Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief.

Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

New episodes of 7am are released every weekday morning.

Make sure you don’t miss out by subscribing on your favourite podcast app.

You can also find us on Twitter and Instagram, just search for 7am podcast.

I’m Ruby Jones, see you next week.

Australia’s relationship with China has become more strained than ever, as Scott Morrison pushes for an international inquiry into the coronavirus outbreak. The Chinese government has expressed concern that such an inquiry would be political and has threatened retaliation. Today, Paul Bongiorno on a new low in Chinese–Australian relations.

Guest: Columnist for The Saturday Paper Paul Bongiorno.

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7am is a daily show from The Monthly and The Saturday Paper. It’s produced by Ruby Schwartz, Atticus Bastow, and Michelle Macklem. Elle Marsh is our features and field producer, in a position supported by the Judith Neilson Institute for Journalism and Ideas. Brian Campeau mixes the show. Our editor is Osman Faruqi. Erik Jensen is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Ned Beckley and Josh Hogan of Envelope Audio.

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214: How Scott Morrison sparked a new war with China