Prime Minister Scott Morrison has demanded China apologise for posting a fake picture on a government Twitter account that depicted an Australian soldier murdering an Afghan child.
Mr Morrison said Beijing should be “utterly ashamed” for sharing the “repugnant” image.
The picture was posted today by Lijian Zhao, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, and shows a grinning soldier holding a bloodied knife to the throat of a veiled child holding a lamb.
Mr Zhao wrote: “Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts, & call for holding them accountable.”
It was a reference to a disturbing report by Australia’s military earlier this month which found evidence that elite Australian troops unlawfully killed 39 Afghan prisoners, farmers and civilians during the conflict in Afghanistan.
Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts, &call for holding them accountable. pic.twitter.com/GYOaucoL5D
— Lijian Zhao 赵立坚 (@zlj517) November 30, 2020
Mr Morrison said he is seeking an apology from the Chinese government, and the incident is further increasing tensions between the two nations in a relationship that was already under strain.
He said: “(It) is truly repugnant. It is deeply offensive to every Australian, every Australian who has served in that uniform.
“The Chinese government should be totally ashamed of this post. It diminishes them in the world’s eyes.”
Mr Morrison said the government had contacted Twitter asking them to take the post down.
Australian defence minister Linda Reynolds said she was “physically ill” after reading the military report which took four years to investigate.
She told a business conference in Perth: “I was like every other Australian who watched that; I was totally and utterly shocked and mortified.”
Australian Defence Force chief General Angus Campbell said that the report included alleged instances in which new Special Air Service patrol members would shoot a prisoner in order to achieve their first kill, in a practice known as “blooding”.
He added that soldiers had also planted weapons and radios to support false claims the prisoners were enemies killed in action.
The report recommended 19 soldiers should be referred to federal police for criminal investigation.
Despite China blocking Twitter and other US social media platforms within the county, Chinese diplomats and state media have established a strong presence on them.
Mr Zhao was criticized by the US in March after tweeting a conspiracy theory that American soldiers may have brought the coronavirus to China.
He is considered a leading representative of China’s high-pitched new strain of assertive foreign relations.
Mr Morrison acknowledged there were tensions between China and Australia.
“But this is not how you deal with them,” he said.
“Australia has patiently sought to seek to address the tensions that exist in our relationship in a mature way, in a responsible way, by seeking engagement at both leader and ministerial level.”
The rift between the two nations has been growing this year after the Australian government called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, and China has since imposed tariffs on a number of Australian exports.
Additional reporting by PA Media