US gets dragged into fight as Australia-China war of words escalates

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The animosity brewing between Australia and China over coronavirus reached a fever pitch this week.

But tensions between the trading partners have been simmering for more than a year over alleged plots to plant spies in the government as well as control over strategic islands in the South Pacific that could have consequences for the United States.

The latest spat started after Australia called for an independent inquiry into the origin of the novel coronavirus.

"I think it's incumbent upon China to answer those questions and provide the information so people can have clarity about exactly what happened because we don't want it to be repeated," Australia's home affairs minister Peter Dutton said on April 17.

AUSTRALIA JOINS US IN SEEKING PROBE OF CHINA AMID QUESTIONS OVER CORONAVIRUS ORIGIN

China responded by threatening economic retaliation and accused Australia of doing America's dirty work.

"Obviously (Dutton) must have also received some instructions from Washington requiring him to cooperate with the U.S. in its propaganda war against China ... Some Australian politicians parroted what those U.S. forces have said and followed them to launch political attacks on China," a Chinese embassy official said. "Their move reveals the former's ignorance and bigotry as well as lack of independence, which is sad."

China has been working hard to shed its image that it silenced doctors and sat on vital virus data when COVID-19 was first detected in Wuhan, the capital city of central China's Hubei province in late 2019. Since then, more than 3.2 million people have been infected by the contagion and nearly 230,000 have died worldwide.

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Though Australia's push for answers will likely receive support from President Trump, who has raked China over coals for downplaying the severity of the virus, allies France and Britain have made clear that now isn't the time to play the blame game.

That hasn't stopped Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison from pressing on.

"Australia will continue to, of course, pursue what is a very reasonable and sensible course of action," he said. "(Coronavirus) has shut down the global economy. It would seem entirely reasonable and sensible that the world would want to have an independent assessment of how this all occurred so we can learn the lessons and prevent it from happening again."

That train of thought is not sitting well with China, who seemed to view the international inquiry as a political witch hunt orchestrated by the United States to knock its biggest economic competitor out.

"Washington from now on would say nothing positive about China, but constantly condemn us. It has a few followers like Australia. But these countries can barely influence us," an April 27 editorial in the Global Times, the mouthpiece of China's ruling Communist Party, claimed.

Instead of bowing to pressure, China has doubled down, marginalizing Australia's concerns and threatening the country with a massive boycott.

CHINA LASHES OUT AT US, CLAIMS COUNTRY IS 'LYING THROUGH THEIR TEETH' ON CORONAVIRUS; THREATENS AUSTRALIA

"Australia is always there, making trouble," Global Times editor Hu Xijin said. "It is a bit like chewing gum stuck on the sole of China's shoes. Sometimes you have to find a stone to rub it off."

"Australia is always there, making trouble. It is a bit like chewing gum stuck on the sole of China's shoes. Sometimes you have to find a stone to rub it off."

— Hu Xijin, Global Times editor

On April 28, Australia's Labor leader Anthony Albanese reiterated his country wants a positive relationship with China but that "it's got to be built on a level of trust and transparency - and transparency is what is required from assessments of the virus and how it came about."

The same day, China's ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye released a summary of an off-the-record private call with the Department of Foreign Affairs secretary Frances Adamson. The summary stated Adamson tried to defend the inquiry into the independent review and denied it was politically motivated, while Cheng said "no matter what excuses the Australian side has made, the fact can not be buried that the proposal is a political maneuver. Just as a western saying goes: Cry up wine and sell vinegar."

Stinging insults aside, this isn't the first time China and Australia have gone at it.

Last year, things got sketchy when allegations surfaced of a Chinese plot to plant an agent in Australia's Parliament.

The country's Nine Network claimed that Chinese operatives had offered luxury car dealer Bo "Nick" Zhao $679,000 to run as a candidate for a parliamentary seat. The 32-year-old ended up dead in a Melbourne hotel room in March after reportedly approaching ASIO, Australia's counterespionage agency.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang brushed off the allegations, claiming Australian politicians and reporters were being paranoid.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Friday, May 1, 2020. Morrison stands firm on his call for an independent inquiry into the coronavirus and denied any motivation other than to prevent such a pandemic happening again.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison speaks to the media during a press conference at Parliament House in Canberra, Friday, May 1, 2020. Morrison stands firm on his call for an independent inquiry into the coronavirus and denied any motivation other than to prevent such a pandemic happening again. (AAP via AP)

"No matter how bizarre the plot is and how their tricks are refurbished, lies are always lies," Geng said. "We have never been and are not interested in interfering in others' affairs."

He then suggested Australia adopt a healthy attitude toward China in the interest of bilateral relations.

Another source of animosity between the two nations are a chain of 14 islands in the South Pacific, including Fiji and Tonga, that have become a strategic priority, not only to China and Australia, but also to the United States.

In recent years, the U.S. has worked hard to build relationships with countries that control the waterways between Asia and America and has been monitoring events in the Pacific closely.

"China is acutely aware that the fledgling democracies of the Pacific are prone to shortsightedness - and in some cases outright corruption - and, as a result, are at risk of manipulation that goes against their best interests," Foreign Policy's Philip Citowicki wrote in 2020. "That lays the groundwork for Chinese expansion, initially economically, with the long-term goal of a military presence to rival that of the United States."

As the COVID-19 outbreak grew into a global crisis, China seized on an opportunity to get cozy with the leaders of the islands by offering financial and medical assistance, easily surpassing the islands' biggest aid donor, Australia.

The Pacific islands have turned to China more and more in recent years for financial assistance and infrastructure projects, and once again, looked to Beijing for help.

Eager to ramp up its push in the Pacific, China was more than happy to oblige. The country pledged close to $2 million in aid and even planned elaborate check presentation ceremonies on multiple islands.

Reuters reported that the Solomon Islands, which switched diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to Beijing last year, received $300,000 from China and was advised by the Chinese embassy in Honiara, the capital city of the Solomon Islands, to buy equipment from the Beijing Genomic Institution.

Solomon Islands Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare said he was trying to charter a flight from French Polynesia to China to return with medical supplies around the same time the Chinese Embassy stepped in and announced it had made plans for a ship to carry several thousand face masks and protective suits donated by Guangdong province to the islands.

China's also offered to send kits and supplies to Vanuatu, Tonga and French Polynesia.

Beijing's ability to organize a teleconference for health officials from 10 Pacific nations on March 10 was "astounding," said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow with the Lowy Institute, an Australian foreign policy think tank. He said that the Australian government should be concerned that its aid efforts were being surpassed by China.

"If they are sending much-needed equipment, it is a good thing, but is also has a geopolitical aspect."

— Richard McGregor, senior fellow Lowy Institute 

"If they are sending much-needed equipment, it is a good thing, but it also has a geopolitical aspect," he said.

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In August, China exploited a rift between Australia and Fiji on climate change. Foreign ministry spokesman Geng quickly called out Australia and likened it to a "condescending master" and said its position toward countries like Fiji were "insulting."

He then sidled up to Fiji and said engagement with China came "with no political strings attached."