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A security man tries to stop the photographer from taking photos of a wet market in Wuhan

Scott Morrison says it’s vital to get to the bottom of COVID-19’s origins

Australia is still pursuing the origin of COVID-19, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison strongly supporting US President Joe Biden’s efforts to get to the bottom of the outbreak.

In a speech ahead of his trip to the weekend G7 summit, which will discuss the pandemic, Morrison is set to say that “having led calls for an independent inquiry, it remains Australia’s firm view that understanding the cause of this pandemic is essential for preventing the next one”.

“I strongly support President Biden’s recent statement that we need to bolster and accelerate efforts to identify the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic”. The prime minister will also “lend Australia’s weight” to achieving a “more independent” World Health Organization with stronger surveillance powers.

Australia’s push for an investigation into COVID-19’s origins infuriated the Chinese. The eventual WHO-sponsored inquiry was inconclusive.

Biden asked the US intelligence community to examine whether COVID-19 evolved from an animal or a laboratory accident. Late last month, he said he wanted efforts redoubled, with a report within 90 days.

In Wednesday’s speech outlining “areas of Australian advocacy and agency” in advance of the G7 meeting, at which climate change will feature, Morrison vigorously defends Australia’s record.

A draft of his speech has been released ahead of its delivery in Perth.

Standing firm on emissions

Morrison repeats Australia is committed to achieving net-zero emissions “as soon as possible, preferably by 2050”, but will not formally embrace the target, which is supported by the G7 countries.

In a pointed reference to some countries urging trade measures against high emitters, he says: “working cooperatively on clean technologies, rather than combatively through protectionist measures, will ensure that emissions abatement doesn’t come at the cost of growth and jobs”.

“It’s important that nation states be accountable for charting their own path to net zero based on their unique economic structures and energy sources.

"Australia does not support setting sectoral targets or timeframes for decarbonising particular parts of our economy or setting false deadlines for phasing out specific energy sources.

"Australia will continue to be a strong voice for a technology-focused approach, and for countries to work together to drive down the cost of low-emissions technologies.”

Australia is not a member of the G7 but is among several countries invited to attend the meeting, being held in the United Kingdom.

Reforming the WTO

For Morrison, the issue of China will be central, and the G7 countries’ response to its increasing assertiveness, including its aggressive response on trade, which has seen it impose restrictions on Australian products as payback for Australian criticism and policy stances.

In his speech, Morrison says he has been greatly encouraged, in his discussions with other leaders, by “the support shown for Australia’s preparedness to withstand economic coercion in recent times”.

He says the most practical way to address economic coercion is to restore the World Trade Organization’s binding dispute settlement system.

“Where there are no consequences for coercive behaviour, there is little incentive for restraint.”

He says the G7 meeting gives an opportunity to point a way forward on reforming the WTO’s appellate body when the WTO’s ministerial conference meets in November.

The appellate body is the final decision maker on disputes brought to the WTO. Its effective functioning is particularly important to Australia because of our trade disputes with China. The Trump administration vetoed appointments and it now has no members, so it cannot hear appeals. This means the WTO is unable to impose penalties on nations which have broken its rules.

Meeting with Biden

One focus of Morrison’s discussions in his bilateral meetings (which include a first face-to-face meeting with Biden since he became president) will be “enhanced cooperation for global security and stability”.

“The simple reality is that Australia’s strategic environment has changed significantly over recent years. Accelerating trends are working against our interests. The Indo-Pacific region – Australia’s region – is the epicentre of renewed strategic competition,” he says in his speech.

“The risks of miscalculation and conflict are growing. And the technological edge enjoyed historically by Australia and our allies is under challenge,” he says.

“We must intensify our cooperation with others to meet the complex security challenges we face.

"Australia has been working hard in our region, building cooperation with the United States, Japan and India. Stepping up in the Pacific. Supporting Southeast Asia and engaging ASEAN as a steadfast partner.”

In relation to keeping supply chains open, Morrison says one priority in his talks will be the development of secure and diverse supply chains for minerals essential for clean energy technologies and military applications.

“At present, the supply chain for rare earths is not diverse - a single nation [China] currently accounts for about 85% of the world’s refined rare earths products.

"Given its endowment in critical minerals, Australia has a responsibility to contribute to greater diversity of critical minerals supply, as far along the value chain as possible.

"The same can be said for lithium.

"That effort will yield both a strategic and economic dividend for Australia.

"I also look forward to discussions on broader supply chain issues as they relate to our economic, health and social resilience.

"Australia is a keen advocate of efforts to keep supply chains open, transparent, competitive, trusted and diverse.”

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