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China and Australia spar over heritage protection of the Great Barrier Reef

Great Barrier Reef has some of the most globally important breeding colonies of seabirds and marine turtles (Image courtesy: Great Barrier Reef Foundation)

Amid a new low in relations, China and Australia – great two-way trading partners otherwise – are now openly sparring over the conservation status for the Great Barrier Reef.

On Monday, the Chinese foreign ministry urged the Australian government to "take care of the treasure of the whole mankind" asking it to "lead by example" and "face up to its serious failings in world heritage protection".

The comment from Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin came in response to sharp criticism from Canberra after the UNESCO World Heritage Committee, chaired by China, had announced on June 22 that it is considering to put the world's most extensive coral reef ecosystem in a list of Heritage Sites that are "in danger" as action was needed to counter the effects of climate change.  

Australia's Environment Minister Sussan Ley had labeled the decision as "flawed" and motivated by "politics" which would be challenged by the Scott Morrison government.  

Pauline Hanson, founder of country's One Nation political party, had also joined in, saying that the threat from the China-chaired World Heritage Committee body was motivated by petty politics.

"This is an obvious threat which is based on Australia-bashing politics, not on an honest assessment of the state of the Great Barrier Reef," said Senator Hanson, alleging that the committee hasn't even bothered to have a look for itself.

In a statement issued last week, Hanson said that the Queensland tourism operators "who have skin in the game" know the reef is doing just fine and the industry, which remains extremely important for them, must not be sacrificed to the "political whims of the unaccountable UN" and "unaccountable" Chinese regime.

"This is China seeking to punish Australia for not towing the communist regime's line. The hypocrisy of the world's largest emitter (responsible for around 29% of global emissions) dictating what we must do to address climate change is appalling and should be called out for what it is," she added

eReefs from Great Barrier Reef Foundation on Vimeo.

Beijing hit back Monday, saying that the recommendation made by the "professional" International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the advisory body of the World Heritage Committee, was based on long-term evaluation.

"As a party to the Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, and especially a member of the World Heritage Committee, Australia should lead by example and respect the opinion of the professional evaluation institution," said the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson.

"It should face up to its serious failings in world heritage protection and earnestly step up preservation efforts instead of politicizing technical issues, wantonly hurling unfounded accusations at UNESCO and its professional evaluation body and shifting the blame to others. Still less should it pressure the World Heritage Committee through innuendo and sensational media reports to sway the Committee's impartial and just decision," added Wang Wenbin.

Clearly, the last word in this has not yet been spoken.

With an online petition to Sussan Ley, urging Australians to "not agree with the government's decision to reject the UN's warning" and show support for the longevity of the Reef, generating a good response, the 'politics' over the Great Barrier Reef ecosystem, inscribed as World Heritage in 1981 and covering an area of 348,000 square kilometres, is all set to get 'dirtier' in the coming days.