30 Apr Diplomatic impunity? China’s man comes from the blind side
Eryk Bagshaw, Anthony Galloway, & Darren Gray – The Sydney Morning Herald – Thursday 30 April 2020
Billionaire miner Andrew Forrest has been accused of ambushing the Australian government after he parachuted one of China’s top diplomats into an official event, blindsiding Health Minister Greg Hunt.
Mr Forrest, the Fortescue chairman, surprised Mr Hunt by inviting the Chinese consulgeneral in Victoria, Zhou Long, to speak alongside him yesterday after he secured 10 million coronavirus tests from China, a 20-fold increase in Australia’s testing capacity.
The audacious bid to mend the deteriorating political relationship between Beijing and Canberra follows increasing pressure from corporate leaders for Australia to back down on its public threats to pursue China’s role in the coronavirus outbreak.
Beijing has spent the past week accusing Australia of being a bully pushing US interests in the region and warned that Chinese consumers could walk out on Australian brands if it continued Continued Page 6 Hunt blindsided by China’s envoy at press conference From Page 1 to lobby for a global independent inquiry into the disease. Mr Hunt did not introduce Mr Zhou and did not allow him to take questions.
The Foreign Minister’s Office and the Prime Minister’s Office were not informed of Mr Zhou’s attendance at the media event, which was held at the Commonwealth Parliament Offices in Melbourne. Mr Zhou used the opportunity to reject the Australian government’s criticisms and praise China’s handling of the virus. The consul-general said China had worked in an “open, transparent and responsible” manner with the World Health Organisation.
Government sources said the hijacking of the press conference could work in Australia’s favour by demonstrating that it was willing to put a week of escalating tensions behind it.
Victorian Liberal senator James Paterson said Mr Forrest “was worth listening to on how to run a successful mining company. I don’t think the government will be following his advice on foreign policy”.
Another Liberal MP, Tim Wilson, said “in a diplomatic disagreement it’s a pretty basic expectation for Australians to be loyal and back their own, not invite a platform for a foreign spokesperson”.
Other MPs said Mr Hunt was clearly ambushed and given little warning. Mr Forrest, who has made significant investments in China, urged Australia and global health authorities to delay any inquiry into the virus until after the US election in November and said it should not just be focused on China. “That would make it instantly political,” he said. “Australia needs to walk that line where we have a best friend in America, a best friend in China, best friends across south-east Asia.”
The chairman of medical company BGI, Wang Jian, praised the strength of the business relationship between Mr Forrest and China. Mr Wang sold the test kits to Mr Forrest’s philanthropic Minderoo Foundation for $320 million. “We were able to protect supply chains for this extremely rare equipment and have Andrew deliver it straight to Australia,” he said. The privately sourced kits will see Australia’s testing capacity bolstered by 10 million more tests.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Australia would press ahead with its pursuit of an inquiry after he called European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen overnight. “The Europeans are bringing forward a motion on this matter at the World Health Assembly. I think it is a very good motion,” he said.