China says Australian beef sales could be further negatively impacted if the Morrison government persists with its demands for an inquiry into the COVID-19 pandemic.
The warning comes from China's ambassador to Australia, Jingye Cheng, who said the consumption of other agricultural commodities such as wine could also be reduced in addition to less Chinese students and tourists coming to Australia.
"The Chinese public is frustrated, dismayed and disappointed with what Australia is doing now," Mr Jingye told the Australian Financial Review. "Maybe also the ordinary people will say why should we drink Australian wine? Eat Australian beef?"
China is one of the remarkable success stories of the red meat industry, with Australian beef exports increasing 60-fold in the past decade. In rapid time, it's become the third largest export market after the US and Japan, and moving ahead of Korea.
Although disrupted by COVID-19 in 2020, Meat and Livestock Australia data shows 206,000 tonnes of beef valued at $1.66 billion was sent to China in 2019. The was also 126,000t of sheepmeat worth $838 million imported in the same period.
Based on rising incomes and continued urbanisation, MLA says beef consumption is expected to rise from 6.7kg/person in 2017 to 8.1kg in 2027.
In the past two years Australian red meat sales have been in part been driven the devastation of the Chinese pig herd because of African swine fever.
The highly-contagious hemorrhagic virus devastated pig populations in 2018-19, resulting in major rises in the cost of pork, far and away the most popular meat in China.
The Morrison government is maintaining its call for an independent inquiry into the origins of COVID-19. It also wants changes to the World Health Organisation over its handling of the pandemic.
Mr Jingye's comments were interpreted as "threatened economic coercion" by Trade Minister Simon Birmingham, who said Australia was not going to change its policy position on a major public health issue.
"Surely Australians would expect our government has determined that the death of hundreds of thousands of people around the world warrants transparency and investigation to prevent it from happening again," Mr Birmingham said.
It is not the first time Mr Jingye has been critical of Australia.
During a period of diplomatic tension between China and the US in October last year the ambassador pointedly reminded Australia its 28 years of economic growth were because of its dependence on China, Australia's largest trading partner.
He said the push for the inquiry into COVID-19 was a "kind of pandering to the assertions that are made by some forces in Washington."
The viral disease was first detected in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in early December. There have been more than 3 million cases and 210,000 deaths globally from COVID-19 to date.