SYDNEY (Reuters) – China accused Australia of taking instructions from the United States over its criticism of Beijing’s handling of the initial outbreak of the novel coronavirus, marking a further deterioration in ties between the two major trading partners.
Senior Australian lawmakers have in recent days echoed U.S. President Donald Trump in calls for an inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus, and questioned Beijing’s transparency over a pandemic that has now paralysed cities around the world.
China’s embassy in Canberra said Australian lawmakers were acting as the mouthpiece of Trump.
“It is well known that recently some people in the U.S. including high-level officials have been spreading anti-China ‘information virus’,” a statement from the embassy said late on Tuesday.
“These days, certain Australian politicians are keen to parrot what those Americans have asserted and simply follow them in staging political attacks on China.”
Bilateral ties between Australia and China have soured in recent years, with Canberra accusing Beijing of meddling in its domestic affairs and raising concerns about what it sees as China’s growing influence in the Pacific region.
Trading ties remain strong. China is Australia’s largest trading partner, buying more than one-third of the country’s total exports and sending more than a million tourists and students there each year in an exchange worth more than A$189 billion ($119 billion).
Australia’s Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said Canberra did not want to weaken its trading relationship with China but it would not by silenced.
“What we want to do is obviously defend Australia’s national interest in whatever realm that is, and we’ll continue to do so,” Frydenberg told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.
The new coronavirus is believed to have emerged in a market in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year. It has spread around the world infecting some 2.3 million people and killing nearly 160,000, according to Reuters calculations.
Australia has just over 6,600 cases of the virus nationally, with the death toll rising to 74 overnight when a 75-year-old man and an 80-year-old woman died in the state of New South Wales (NSW).
Keen to avoid large-scale escalations in the number of new infections, Australia has for more than a month imposed tough social distancing restrictions, closed it borders to all non-residents and forced locals returning from overseas into quarantine.
The restrictions have slowed the spread of the virus, and on Wednesday Australia’s most populated states reported just single digit rises in new coronavirus cases.
NSW said it has reported five new cases, while Queensland state said it has found no new cases for the second time this week.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said more elective surgeries would be permitted and schools across many parts of the country will begin face-to-face teaching on a staggered basis next month.
Some local lawmakers have also eased some curbs, with Australia’s iconic Bondi Beach to partially reopen next week.
However, Morrison has said the most social distancing restrictions – including the closure of restaurants and pubs, and the banning of outdoor gatherings of more than two – will remain until at least mid-May.