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Australia called for a COVID-19 probe. China responded with a trade war

Last year marked the first time Australia referred China to the World Trade Organization during a trade war between the two nations, which has largely been seen as a response to Australia's calls for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19.

The announcement that Australia would be advocating for such an inquiry was made by Foreign Minister Marise Payne in an interview on Insiders — Prime Minister Scott Morrison doubled down on the new policy days later, saying the World Health Organization needed "weapons inspector" powers to investigate the pandemic.

China viewed Australia's suggestion as an insult: Beijing had been growing increasingly sensitive about the perception that it was to blame for the virus, which was first detected in the city of Wuhan.

Chinese officials have even gone so far as to put forward a conspiracy theory that the virus may have come from the United States

Is there any reason why China should have this aggressive reaction to any independent investigation?

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    What makes you think that any investigation would be “independent”?
    – user16741
    Aug 31, 2021 at 22:55

3 Answers 3

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Preemptive defense.

If Chinese leadership decides that they have more to lose than to win by such an investigation, then it's not worth to allow it.

In the best of cases Chinese leadership has a high level of confidence that no accident or otherwise negligent event happened that significantly contributed to the spread of Covid-19*. Even then, it's possible for an investigation to put a prolonged negative spotlight on China, a meddling power (foreign or internal) to plant false evidence, or investigators to find something Chinese leadership simply didn't know about.

Simply preventing an investigation is way more predictable. And in case pressure eventually mounts, Chinese leadership can always switch tactics and still allow an investigation, with the benefits from the wasted time being generally in their favor.

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*If Chinese leadership doesn't have that confidence, that's another plausible explanation for their behavior.

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    They don't want to allow a precedent? The unequal treaties of the 19th century are still fresh in their memory, fresher than for the West.
    – o.m.
    Sep 1, 2021 at 18:49
  • @o.m.: AFAICT, the unequal treaties have been more often brought up in the US-China trade war context, but yeah they were/are a talking point.
    – Fizz
    Sep 2, 2021 at 11:47
  • @Fizz, consider also the one-China question. They're very sensitive on the question of sovereignty, and not without reason.
    – o.m.
    Sep 2, 2021 at 12:30
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Peter's answer summarizes the immediate cost/benefit calculus, but it's somewhat narrow. Consider also that it's part of a larger pattern:

  • China used similar economic measures to pressure South Korea (over THAAD) and in a few more obscure spats with other/smaller countries in the past decade.

  • Their long-term foreign policy plank has been "non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries". If they make concessions on this (which to some extent they actually did, eventually, as there was eventually a WHO mission, which China did their best to control both in terms of who was in the delegation and what they were shown) then why not allow human-rights investigations in Xinjiang and a bunch of other matters that they are being pressed on. (N.B., on Xinjiang, China would agree to a UN "visit"--the details of which are still being worked on, apparently, but they would not agree to an investigation.)

  • Other countries with great- or super-power ambitions don't easily admit to investigations by international bodies in their back yard; the case US and the ICC, Russia and novichok etc.

  • The conspiracy theories with which China "fought back" on Covid-19 are pretty risible from a Western perspective, but consider also how Russia has pushed back similarly e.g. on novichok.

  • China hasn't been terribly good at keeping a lid on their fumbles in the initial responses to Covid-19; plenty of documents have been leaked and covered by the Western media. These exposed issues ranging from bureaucrats not wanting to lose face and "massaging" numbers, to possible corruption (or at least technical incompetence) of some companies that did the initial testing, internal disagreements between Chinese officials, etc. All juicy bits for investigative journalism, but not the kind of image that China (or any state, even more so one with authoritarian tendencies) is trying to project. Unsurprisingly, there's been internal clampdown in China on that angle too.

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There are other reasons for the tension between China and Australia. The media states that the trade war is solely due to the request for the investigation just to fuel the conspiracy theory about Covid-19 origin.

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  • What others? They certainly exist, but sanctions came only with this request for investigation.
    – Behemooth
    Aug 31, 2021 at 17:29
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    Please expand on this answer. This answer needs more detail on the "other reasons", and one or more citations from "the media" (or more specifically, the subset that you're talking about, because I doubt "the media" are uniform on this).
    – Joe C
    Aug 31, 2021 at 17:40

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