A bipartisan delegation in Congress is showing support for the Australian government's call to investigate China over its cover-up of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a letter sent Thursday to the Australian ambassador.
China has already threatened to boycott Australian goods and take other punitive measures against the country after Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for an independent investigation into the Communist Party's efforts to censor information about the virus and destroy medical samples that could have been used in research. Australian leaders have also pressed for an investigation into the World Health Organization and its top officials over its alleged collusion with China.
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Chinese officials are using their state-controlled press organs to discredit Australia and accuse the country of being part of a U.S. plot to undermine Beijing. The statements include calls for boycotts of Australian foods and other products.
In a sign of a growing consensus in Congress that China must be held accountable for its behavior, a group of more than 20 congressional leaders, in a letter sent to Australia's ambassador to the United States, rejected Beijing's intimidation tactics and vowed to back Australia's tough stance. Members of both parties in the House and Senate signed on to the letter, including Sens. James Risch (R., Idaho), Robert Menendez (D., N.J.), Ben Cardin (D., Md.), Marco Rubio (R., Fla.), and Reps. Mike Gallagher (R., Wis.), Liz Cheney (R., Wyo.), and Ted Lieu (D., Calif.), among others.
The lawmakers accused China of engaging in economic blackmail against Australia.
"Unfortunately, and not for the first time, Chinese government officials responded to these calls with deeply disturbing and thinly-disguised threats of retaliation," they wrote. "We unequivocally oppose this behavior and strongly support Foreign Minister Marise Payne's rejection of ‘any suggestion that economic coercion is an appropriate response to a call for such an assessment.'"
In addition to calling for boycotts, Chinese state-controlled media outlets have smeared Australia, recently calling the nation "gum stuck to the bottom of China's shoe." These threats are meant to deter an investigation and send a sign to Western nations that China will take punitive action against those who speak out.
An investigation into the WHO and China is warranted, however, as new information indicates that the Communist Party went to great lengths to hide the virus from the world, according to the lawmakers.
"Given the tremendous toll COVID-19 has taken on the world, it is only natural that Australia—like all nations concerned with upholding best practices for global public health—would want an objective, scientific, evidence-based, and rigorous investigation into the origins of the virus," the lawmakers wrote.
The lawmakers said the pandemic has awakened world leaders to the threat posed by China's repressive ruling regime—including its routine bullying of Western nations.
"This incident is part of a broader and concerning pattern from the Chinese government," the letter states. "As we continue to confront this deadly disease and its consequences, we will be faced with many tough decisions, including those that may arise from the Chinese government's continued lack of cooperation and transparency."
In a comment to the Washington Free Beacon, Gallagher emphasized the importance of backing Australia's stand against China's threats of coercion.
"The Five Eyes Alliance in general, and the U.S.-Australia Alliance in particular, is the foundation of the Free World. Now more than ever, we must stand united in defense of our Free World values, particularly when one of our own is the target of hostile coercion," Gallagher said. "This bipartisan, bicameral letter not only denounces Ambassador Cheng [Jingye]'s thinly-veiled threats against Australia, but also demonstrates that America stands with our mates in Australia, as we have done for 100 years and will do for 100 more."
The letter marks a rare point of agreement between congressional leaders and the Trump administration, which has accused China from the start of lying about the virus. Senior administration officials in recent days have gone public with information indicating that China destroyed critical virus samples and detained scientists who attempted to disclose its dangers to the world.
"It is pretty clear that at the front end of this the Chinese Communist Party misled the world," Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told reporters on Wednesday. "That is, they knew more and they didn't share that, and they had an obligation to do so."
"[WHO director] Dr. Tedros needs to be just as concerned as the United States and Australia and other countries are that we still don't have access to the answers we need," Pompeo said.
Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) announced on Thursday that he appointed several of his members to the new congressional coronavirus oversight committee, which is comprised of both Republicans and Democrats. It is likely the GOP side will initiate probes of both China and the WHO.