Coronavirus: Why Winston Peters isn't afraid to upset China with COVID-19 inquiry

Deputy Prime Minister Winston Peters isn't worried about upsetting China with his backing for a global investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since emerging from China in January, the disease has killed hundreds of thousands of people and infected millions. 

Scientists and intelligence agencies have ruled out rumours it was a bioweapon or created in a lab, but questions remain about China's actions early in the outbreak, particularly whether it acted fast enough or tried to obscure the seriousness of the disease from the rest of the world. 

Australia ruffled feathers two weeks ago when it proposed an international probe into the origins of the pandemic, and New Zealand has expressed interest in signing up.

China, New Zealand's biggest trading partner, has promised not to punish NZ if it joins the investigation. Peters told Newshub Nation on Saturday it's important to find out how the pandemic began, whether it angers China or not.

"It is illogical and irrational not to think a malignancy that has cost, and will cost millions of lives, has us so numb to reality that we don't bother internationally to find out how it happened. How can we possibly look victims' families in the face and say we didn't care?"

He said calls for an international investigation into the US origins of the global financial crisis of 2008 were ignored, resulting in a decade of economic harm. 

"Where's the logic, the rationality or the sanity in having a massive loss of life... with devastation to the economies of the world, without stopping to say, 'How did this happen?'" 

China's Ambassador to Australia, Cheng Jingye, this week hinted tourism from China - the world's most populous country - might reduce if Australia presses ahead with the inquiry.

"The Chinese public is frustrated, dismayed, and disappointed with what Australia is doing now," Cheng told the Australian Financial Review.

"If the mood is going from bad to worse, people would think 'why should we go to such a country that is not so friendly to China?' The tourists may have second thoughts."

Winston Peters.
Winston Peters. Photo credit: Newshub.

Peters said it was time New Zealand started trading more with other countries anyway.

"It makes sense in the context that previous administrations have made a terrible mistake of putting all their eggs in one basket. That oldest adage in the book is not put all your eggs in one basket, but economically, that's what we did. One product - milk, one company - Fonterra, and one market - China."

Peters was Minister of Foreign Affairs in 2008 when New Zealand's free trade agreement with China was signed. The Labour-NZ First coalition was bundled out of Government later that year. 

Since then, exports to China have risen from $2.1 billion a year to $15.5 billion - two-thirds of it being dairy and meat, according to the NZ China Council. 

"I'm proposing that we learn from our lessons to massively broaden our markets to ensure that we are not dependent on one market. That has always been a wise strategy," said Peters. 

"Why on Earth have previous administrations foolishly gone down this line? Here we are under the COVID-19 disastrous explosion around the world, learning the dangers of such thinking. I hope there's an admission of that mistake and that we've learned from it so that we don't - as we try and come out of this COVID-19 economic disaster - spend time going down fruitless paths."