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Australia welcomes growing support for coronavirus inquiry

CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — Australia’s foreign minister on Monday welcomed international support for an independent investigation of the coronavirus pandemic, a proposed inquiry that has been condemned by China and blamed for a bilateral trade rift.

The European Union has drafted a resolution, cosponsored by dozens of countries including Australia, that has been gaining support and is expected to be approved in a vote at the World Health Assembly in Geneva this week. The resolution before the assembly, the decision-making body of the World Health Organization, calls for an evaluation of the origins of the pandemic and responses to it.

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said her government had been keen to ensure that the resolution stipulates the inquiry be “impartial, independent and comprehensive.”

“We’re very encouraged by the growing levels of support for this comprehensive World Health Assembly motion,” Payne told reporters. “We look forward to seeing hopefully a positive outcome later this week.”

Australia has been seen as a leader in rallying global support for such an inquiry, attracting Chinese criticism that it is parroting the United States and inviting a Chinese boycott of exports and services. Australian government critics have argued that Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative administration should have gathered allies before antagonizing Australia’s most important trading partner.

Payne did not see the level of international support for the inquiry as a win for Australia.

“It’s a win for the international community and Australia as a strong and active part of that international community would certainly see it that way,” Payne said.

The motion comes as Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham struggles to resolve a dispute with China over Australian beef imports.

Birmingham said Monday that he had failed for six days to arrange to speak with is Chinese counterpart about China’s ban on meat from Australia’s four largest abattoirs over labeling issues.

Australia expects China will soon announce whether new tariffs will be placed on Australian barley, a crop China argues is subsidized by the Australian government.

Australia’s most lucrative exports to China — iron ore and coal — have not been affected by the dispute.

Birmingham said Australia was prepared to take China to the World Trade Organization over both the beef and barley issues.

“In the end, Australia uses the independent umpire where it's appropriate,” Birmingham told Seven Network television.

“I hope China will come on board at the World Health Assembly, joining many, many other nations in supporting the obvious need for an inquiry into COVID-19, its origins, its handling right across the world,” he added.

The trade dispute is the first time Beijing has used access to its huge markets as leverage in its campaign to deflect blame for the outbreak. But it has used the tactic regularly against governments from Norway to Canada in political disputes over the past decade.

Chinese officials routinely refuse to confirm a trade disruption is related to a political clash but make it clear Beijing wants concessions.

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