Australia Urges G-20 to Scrutinize Wildlife Wet Markets

(Bloomberg) --

Australia used a virtual meeting of G-20 agriculture ministers to call for scrutiny of wildlife wet markets, calling them a risk to biosecurity and human health -- a move that may exacerbate tensions with China.

The Group of 20 nations have a responsibility to use global experts and international organizations to “rationally and methodically look at the many significant risks,” they pose, said Agriculture Minister David Littleproud in a statement. Governments need to “take action to protect human health and agricultural industries,” he said.

Though the minister did not single out China in the statement, the call could be perceived as criticism over Beijing’s handling of the coronavirus, which is thought to have originated from a wet market in Wuhan where non-traditional animals were suspected of being sold for food.

Since then, China has banned its wildlife meat trade. Still, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said America is calling for China to “permanently close its wildlife wet markets” and urged “ASEAN governments to do the same.”

Australia Urges G-20 to Scrutinize Wildlife Wet Markets

The call could also further strain ties with China, with Australia a close ally of the United States. Foreign Minister Marise Payne on the weekend called for an independent review of how the global coronavirus pandemic came to infect almost 2.6 million people and kill more than 177,000, earning a rebuke from Chinese officials who said the country is a victim of the virus, not a culprit.

“Any doubt about China’s transparency is not only inconsistent with the facts, but also disrespectful of the tremendous efforts and sacrifices of the Chinese people,” foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said Monday. “We hope that Australia will do more things to deepen China-Australia relations, enhance mutual trust and help epidemic prevention and control in both countries, rather than dancing to the tune of a certain country to hype up the situation.”

Although the first known cluster centered on the Wuhan wet market, scientists are still probing the ultimate origins of the virus, with the consensus thus far that it likely passed from bats to humans.

In a further rebuke Thursday, China said it doesn’t have so-called wildlife wet markets. “There is no such concept as the wet market in China,” Geng said at a briefing. “The common ones are agricultural markets and live poultry and seafood markets. Such markets exist not only in China, but also in some Southeast Asian countries and a large number of developing countries.” International law does not restrict their operation, Geng said.

China Tensions

Australia also used the G-20 meeting to push for accelerated trade negotiations on tariffs and technical trade barriers which are an impediment to food supply chains, according to the statement.

China this week ramped up criticism of Australian lawmakers who have called on the country to be more transparent about the origins of the pandemic.

While China is Australia’s largest trading partner, tensions between the two nations have risen over the past two years. In 2018, the conservative government passed laws aimed at stopping Beijing’s meddling in domestic affairs and banned Huawei Technologies Co. from helping build the new 5G telecommunications network on national security grounds.

After Australia’s Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton last week said it was “incumbent” upon China to answer questions on the outbreak’s origins, the Chinese Embassy in Canberra on Tuesday hit back.

“Certain Australian politicians are keen to parrot what those Americans have asserted and simply follow them in staging political attacks on China,” the embassy said. “This fully exposes the former’s ignorance and bigotry as well as their lack of independence in serving orders from others, which is pitiful.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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