Jami-Lee Ross urges Winston Peters to join Australia and ask China 'the hard questions' on COVID-19

MP Jami-Lee Ross is urging Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters to join Australia and ask "the hard questions" of China amid speculation the superpower withheld information about COVID-19. 

Ross, a former National MP known for his fall out with old boss Simon Bridges, asked Peters in Parliament what the Government's approach will be towards New Zealand's largest trading partner, in light of the accusations. 

"Will New Zealand be signing up alongside other countries like Australia and the US, our traditional partners, in questioning how economic devastation around the world has taken place as a result of a virus originating from China, where they are not providing real and proper information to the rest of the world?"

Peters said New Zealand is open to an investigation into the origins of the virus, echoing recent comments by Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. He said it would be "absolutely illogical and inconceivable" that any country would not want to. 

But he said that is "not the priority now" and that the Government's current focus is on "getting the COVID-19 plague out of our lives". However, he said there "will come a time - and soon - when we need to have that inquiry independently [and] reliably sourced". 

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison has pushed for an independent global inquiry into China's handling of the coronavirus, prompted by United States President Donald Trump, who has also questioned the World Health Organisation (WHO)'s response. 

The independent review would look at China's early response to the outbreak of COVID-19 in the central Chinese city Wuhan, where the coronavirus emerged late last year. The US accused China of withholding information about it in the early stages. 

President Trump has even floated a theory - which his administration claimed was backed by evidence - that the coronavirus was manufactured in a laboratory in Wuhan. The theory has been rejected by China, and US intelligence agencies have denied proof.  

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne said in April Australia wanted the independent review to help "identify for us about the genesis of the virus, about the approaches to dealing with it [and] addressing the openness with which information was shared". 

Ross cited a recent diplomatic spat between Payne and China's Ambassador to Australia Cheng Jingye following Australia's call for the independent review. Cheng threatened a Chinese consumer boycott in Australia and a downturn in exports. 

Payne slapped down the threat, rejecting "any suggestion that economic coercion is an appropriate response to a call for such an assessment, when what is needed is global co-operation".  

Peters acknowledged the incident, but repeated what he has said before, that Chinese officials have promised him over the years that "they don't behave that way - so there's probably a disconnect between Beijing and what was going on in that country". 

"If you say, 'We should be trusted', our responsibility is to say, 'Yeah, we trust you - we believe you', and that's why, when a thing like that happens - when a local diplomat gets out of line - we're not going to have our policy determined by that."

China's Ambassador to New Zealand Wu Xi has pushed back against questions about China's response to the outbreak, insisting the superpower acted "swiftly" but also admitting China was "caught off guard".  

Her comments were in defence of strong criticism from US Ambassador to New Zealand Scott Brown, who said the CDC - the top national public health institute in the US - offered China help back in December, but Beijing "denied, denied, denied".  

The Chinese Embassy in New Zealand has also spoken out against the Government's support of Taiwan becoming a member of the WHO, because China considers the island one of its provinces and the global health body is only composed of sovereign states. 

Taiwan, with just six deaths in a population of about 23 million, is considered to have done well in handling the virus outbreak, prompting some nations to support it joining the WHO to share information about its processes. 

But China says it "frequently and promptly shared relevant information with the Taiwan region" after the COVID-19 outbreak, and that there is no need for Taiwan to join. 

Peters shot back at the embassy's response, telling Wu Xi she should "listen to her master, Wang Yi, back in Beijing" who had given him assurances "China does not behave that way".