Backing Australia, US State Department says China hit 'new low' with doctored image

Mr Scott Morrison's message had been read by 50,000 WeChat users by Wednesday morning. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - The United States has called China's use of a digitally manipulated image of an Australian soldier a "new low", weighing into the dispute between Canberra and Beijing over the tweet.

China has rebuffed Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison's calls for an apology after its foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian posted the picture of an Australian soldier holding a bloodied knife to the throat of an Afghan child on Monday (Nov 30).

China's embassy said the "rage and roar" from Australian politicians and media over the image was an overreaction.

But other nations, including the United States, New Zealand and France, have expressed concern at the Chinese foreign ministry's use of the manipulated image on an official Twitter account.

"The CCP's latest attack on Australia is another example of its unchecked use of disinformation and coercive diplomacy. Its hypocrisy is obvious to all," the US State Department said on Wednesday, adding that while China doctored images on Twitter, its citizens were prevented from reading Twitter posts.

The department's deputy spokesman Cale Brown said the fabricated image of the soldier was "a new low, even for the Chinese Communist Party".

"As the CCP spreads disinformation, it covers up its horrendous human rights abuses, including the detention of more than a million Muslims in Xinjiang," Mr Brown wrote in a tweet.

France's foreign affairs spokesman said on Tuesday the tweeted image was "especially shocking" and the comments by Mr Zhao "insulting for all countries whose armed forces are currently engaged in Afghanistan".

China's embassy in Paris hit back on Wednesday, saying France had sided with "war criminals".

The Chinese embassy said on its website the soldier image tweeted by Mr Zhao was a caricature by a painter, adding that France had previously loudly defended the right to caricature.

Mr Morrison used Chinese social media platform WeChat to criticise the "false image".

In a WeChat message on Tuesday night, Mr Morrison wrote that the diplomatic dispute over the image of the soldier "does not diminish respect and appreciation for the Chinese community in Australia".

He defended Australia's handling of a war crimes investigation into the actions of special forces in Afghanistan, and said Australia is able to deal with "thorny issues" like this in a transparent manner.

Australia has previously said 19 soldiers will be referred for potential criminal prosecution for the killings of unarmed Afghan prisoners and civilians.

WeChat told an Australian government inquiry in October it had 690,000 active daily users in Australia.

Mr Morrison's message had been read by 50,000 WeChat users by Wednesday morning.

Mr Zhao's tweet, pinned to the top of his Twitter account, had been "liked" by 54,000 followers, after Twitter labelled it as sensitive content but declined the Australian government's request to remove the image.

Twitter is blocked in China, but has been increasingly used by Chinese diplomats who have adopted combative "Wolf Warrior diplomacy" tactics this year.

China on Friday imposed dumping tariffs of up to 200 per cent on Australian wine imports, effectively shutting off the largest export market for the Australian wine industry, amid a worsening diplomatic dispute that has seen a serious of trade reprisals imposed by China.

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