As diplomatic tensions escalated Tuesday night, the Department of Foreign Affairs issued a rebuke to China for leaking details of a private conversation between Australian officials and China over the threats.
But the state-controlled People’s Daily accused the Prime Minister of trying to use the calls for a probe to deflect criticism over his handling of the bushfires and the coronavirus crisis.
“The deeply troubled Morrison government is anxious to find an outlet for the domestic public’s anger,” the People’s Daily report states.
“They are using an old trick to try and blame China.”
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Predicting the Prime Minister’s call for an independent inquiry would fail, the People’s Daily said France and the United Kingdom would reject it.
“This is a slap on the face which has come quickly,’’ it warned.
The diplomatic war of words follows incendiary comments by the Chinese Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye on Monday.
In a recent interview with the Australian Financial Review, Cheng refused to concede that COVID-19 even originated in Wuhan’s wet markets
“The Chinese public is frustrated, dismayed and disappointed with what Australia is doing now,” he said.
“I think in the long term … if the mood is going from bad to worse, people would think
‘Why should we go to such a country that is not so friendly to China? The tourists may have second thoughts.
“The parents of the students would also think whether this place which they found is not so friendly, even hostile, whether this is the best place to send their kids here.
“It is up to the people to decide. Maybe the ordinary people will say ‘Why should we drink Australian wine? Eat Australian beef?’”
In response, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary Frances Adamson rang the Chinese ambassador to Australia on Tuesday to complain.
However, China promptly leaked an embarrassing account of the purported comments.
Accusing Australia of trying to “cry up wine and sell vinegar”, the Chinese ambassador claimed Ms Adamson played down the immediate need for an investigation.
“Secretary Adamson tried her best to defend Australia’s proposal about the independent review, saying the proposal neither has political motive nor targets China,” a spokesman said.
“She also admitted it is not the time to commence the review now and Australia has no details of the proposal. She further said that Australia does not want the matter to have any impact on the Australia-China relationship.”
“Ambassador Cheng elaborated clearly China’s relevant position, stressing that no matter what excuses the Australian side has made, the fact cannot be buried that the proposal is a political manoeuvre.
“Just as a western saying goes: Cry up wine and sell vinegar.”
In a strongly worded and rare public statement late on Tuesday, the Department of Foreign Affairs last night accused China of disclosing “purported details of official diplomatic exchanges.”
“DFAT notes with regret that the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China has issued a statement releasing purported details of official diplomatic exchanges,’’ it said.
“The department will not respond by itself breaching the longstanding diplomatic courtesies and professional practices to which it will continue to adhere.
“How foreign missions engage the Australian media are matters for those missions.
“For its part, the department will continue to pursue Australia’s interests with all foreign missions according to the highest standards of professionalism, courtesy and respect for our counterparts.”
Trade Minister Simon Birmingham confirmed Ms Adamson had called the ambassador following the comments, but declined to reveal details.
“The government has made our displeasure with those (Mr Jingye’s) remarks known,” Senator Birmingham said.
Statement regarding comments by the Embassy of the People’s Republic of China https://t.co/UMbGKtNXWc
— DFAT🇦🇺 (@dfat) April 28, 2020
The rising tensions follow Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton’s confirmation that Western intelligence agencies want to probe whether or not COVID-19 accidentally escaped from a Wuhan lab.
An exclusive investigation by The Daily Telegraph revealed on Tuesday that Five Eyes intelligence agencies of Australia, Canada, NZ, UK and US, are looking closely at the work of virologist Shi Zhengli and a senior scientist at the Wuhan Institute of Virology, Peng Zhou.
Shi is known as “The Batwoman” of Wuhan according to colleagues, for her groundbreaking research into coronaviruses in bats.
There is a direct Australian link to the researcher’s work, with the pair having previously conducted bat research in a Geelong CSIRO lab, The Daily Telegraph uncovered.
But Shi insists COVID-19 did not escape from her lab, although she feared, in the beginning, it might have been responsible.
She recently told the magazine Scientific American that she “breathed a sigh of relief when the results came back: none of the sequences matched those of the viruses her team had sampled from bat caves”.
“That really took a load off my mind,” she said.
“I had not slept a wink for days.”
Samantha Maiden is news.com.au’s national political editor | @samanthamaiden