SYDNEY (Reuters) – Prime Minister Scott Morrison said on Thursday he would not be intimidated by “coercion” after China restricted some Australian exports and urged Chinese tourists and students to avoid Australia.
Diplomatic tensions between Beijing and Canberra have worsened since Australia called for an international inquiry into the source and spread of the new coronavirus, which first emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
Lobbying by Australia and the European Union prompted the World Health Assembly last month to back an independent review into the coronavirus pandemic.
On Tuesday, China’s Ministry of Education said students should reconsider choosing to study in Australia. International education is Australia’s fourth-largest export industry, worth A$38 billion ($26 billion) annually.
“We are an open-trading nation, mate, but I’m never going to trade our values in response to coercion from wherever it comes,” Morrison told radio station 2GB on Thursday.
China has in recent weeks banned Australian beef imports and imposed tariffs on Australian barley. It has also urged Chinese tourists to avoid Australia.
In both cases, officials in Beijing said the warnings were due to racist attacks against Asians during the pandemic.
“That’s rubbish. It’s a ridiculous assertion and it’s rejected. That’s not a statement that’s been made by the Chinese leadership,” Morrison said in a separate interview on 3AW.
Asked about Morrison’s comments, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying denied accusations of coercion and said the warnings were based on facts.
China urges Australia to protect the safety of Chinese citizens, she told a daily news conference.
Australia lodged a protest with China’s foreign ministry and with its embassy in Canberra about Beijing’s travel and student warnings.
A coalition representing Australia’s elite universities, the Group of Eight, has said international education is “being used as a political pawn”.
The Australian National University’s chancellor, Julie Bishop, formerly Australia’s foreign minister, said the university offered students from more than 100 countries a world-class education.
“Canberra is one of the safest cities in a country widely regarded as one of the safest in the world,” she said.
Many international students have been unable to return to Australia because of travel bans to stop the spread of COVID-19, but ANU said most of its students remained enrolled and 65% of its Chinese students were in Australia.
Monash University’s vice-chancellor, Margaret Gardner, told ABC Radio it was “very tense times diplomatically between China and Australia and in fact in this case universities and their students from China are part of the collateral”.
China is Australia’s largest trading partner, with two-way trade worth A$235 billion a year.
(Reporting by Kirsty Needham; Editing by Gareth Jones)