Chinese paramilitary police wearing face masks to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus stand guard along a street near…
Chinese paramilitary police wearing face masks to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus stand guard along a street near Tiananmen Square in Beijing on April 29, 2020.

SYDNEY - An extraordinary diplomatic dispute is intensifying between Australia and China over the new coronavirus. Canberra wants an international investigation into the source of COVID-19 and its spread, a move that has infuriated Beijing.

China has rejected criticism from other governments about how it handled the outbreak of COVID-19. The highly contagious and deadly new coronavirus is thought to have originated at an animal market in Wuhan, a large city in China’s Hubei province.

Australia is pushing for an international investigation into the origins of the disease, and how and why it became a global pandemic.

While the idea is likely to have support from U.S. President Donald Trump, France and Britain have said now is the time to fight the virus, not to look for who to blame.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, though, says the world deserves answers on the deadly COVID-19 outbreak.

“Australia will continue to, of course, pursue what is a very reasonable and sensible course of action,” he said. “It 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.”

China sees the inquiry as a political witch hunt, orchestrated by the U.S. and designed to humiliate Beijing. Its ambassador to Canberra has hinted at retaliation and a boycott of Australian products and universities, described by a senior Australian government minister as “threats of economic coercion.”

However, Long Zhou, China's consul general in the state of Victoria, said Beijing has acted in good faith over the COVID-19 pandemic.

“China has attached great importance to international health cooperation,” he said. “The Chinese government has released information related to the COVID-19 in (an) open, transparent and responsible manner.”

Some experts believe Australia’s relationship with China, already strained with allegations of political meddling and cyber espionage, is now at its lowest point since diplomatic ties were established in 1972.

Australia has much to lose. China is its biggest trading partner, and its demand for natural resources has helped to underpin its recent prosperity. Before Australia closed its borders because of the COVID-19 outbreak, Chinese travelers and students were also important to the success of its tourism and higher education sectors.

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