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China embassy accuses Australia of 'petty tricks' in coronavirus dispute

SYDNEY (Reuters) - China accused Australia of “petty tricks” on Wednesday in an intensifying dispute over Canberra’s push for an international inquiry into the coronavirus outbreak that could affect diplomatic and economic ties between the countries.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said his proposed inquiry into how the coronavirus developed and spread would not be targeted at China but was needed given COVID-19 had killed more than 200,000 people and shut down much of the global economy.

“Now, 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,” he said.

Australian government ministers have repeatedly said China, the country’s largest trade partner, was threatening “economic coercion” after its ambassador, Cheng Jingye, said this week that Chinese consumers could boycott Australian products and universities because of the calls for the inquiry.The head of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) called Cheng to express concern. The Chinese embassy then released a statement detailing what it said was discussed on the call, prompting another rebuke from DFAT.

On Wednesday, the Chinese embassy returned fire, saying on its website that details of the call had first been “obviously leaked by some Australian officials” and it needed to set the record straight.

“The Embassy of China doesn’t play petty tricks, this is not our tradition. But if others do, we have to reciprocate,” an embassy spokesman said in the statement.

Chinese state media has fiercely rounded on Morrison, with Australian studies scholar Chen Hong writing in the Global Times tabloid on Wednesday that Australia was “spearheading” a “malicious campaign to frame and incriminate China”.

And Hu Xijin, the editor-in-chief of the paper which is affiliated to the Beijing-controlled People’s Daily newspaper, said on Chinese social media that Australia was always 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 wrote.

New Zealand, which also has China as its largest trading partner, on Wednesday sided with neighbouring Australia in supporting an inquiry into the pandemic.

“It’s very hard to conceive of there not being a desire by every country in world, including the country of origin, for an investigation to find out how this happened,” Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters said.

Australia’s call for an inquiry has so far only received lukewarm support more widely, with France and the United Kingdom saying it was not the right time to focus on an inquiry.

U.S. President Donald Trump has said China could have stopped the coronavirus before it swept the globe and that his administration was conducting “serious investigations” into what happened.

Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Additional reporting by Praveen Menon in WELLINGTON and Colin Packham in SYDNEY; Editing by Robert Birsel and Michael Perry

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