SYDNEY/BEIJING • Australia demanded an apology after a senior Chinese official posted online a fake image of an Australian soldier holding a knife with blood on it to the throat of an Afghan child, calling it truly repugnant and demanding that it be taken down.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison called a media briefing to condemn the posting on Twitter, marking another downturn in deteriorating ties between the two countries.
The Australian government has asked Twitter to remove the image, posted yesterday by China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian on his official Twitter account.
"It is utterly outrageous and cannot be justified on any basis," Mr Morrison said. "The Chinese government should be utterly ashamed of this post. It diminishes them in the world's eyes."
When asked about Mr Morrison's comments, Mr Zhao's boss dismissed his demand for apology, asking at a regular media briefing in Beijing whether the Australian leader "lacks a sense of right and wrong".
"It is the Australian government who should feel ashamed for their soldiers killing innocent Afghan civilians," said China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying.
The image posted by Mr Zhao - along with the text "Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians and prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts and call for holding them accountable" - shows people's indignation, said Ms Hua. Whether it will be taken down is a matter between Twitter and the Australian government, she said.
Ms Hua added that it was Australia that should apologise to Afghanistan. She also denied any link between the tweet and the broader dispute between China and Australia.
"That is totally unrelated with other issues between China and Australia - it is a matter of principle," Ms Hua said. "There are other issues between China and Australia, but the root cause for that is that Australia goes against basic norms of international relations and took wrong measures on issues bearing on China's core interests."
Australia is the world's most China-dependent developed economy, and finalised a free trade agreement with Beijing in 2015.
Relations have deteriorated after Canberra called for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic.
Last month, China outlined a list of grievances about Australia's foreign investment, national security and human rights policy, saying that Canberra needed to correct its actions to restore the bilateral ties with its largest trading partner.
In the latest in a series of trade sanctions, China announced last Friday that it will impose temporary anti-dumping tariffs of up to 212.1 per cent on wine imported from Australia, a move Canberra has labelled unjustified and linked to diplomatic grievances.
Australia has told 13 special forces soldiers that they face dismissal in relation to an independent report on alleged unlawful killings in Afghanistan, the head of the country's army said last Friday.
Following a four-year inquiry, a government-commissioned report found there was credible information that 25 Australian personnel may have been complicit in the unlawful killings of prisoners, farmers and other civilians.
Australian Defence Force chief Angus Campbell said he sincerely and unreservedly apologised to the Afghan people, when he announced the investigation results.
Mr Morrison said Australia had established a "transparent and honest" process for investigating the allegations against the accused soldiers, and this "is what a free, democratic, liberal country does".
Mr Zhao, who has more than 175,000 followers on Twitter, is closely associated with "Wolf Warrior" diplomacy, a more confrontational approach named after a nationalistic Chinese action film series of the same name.
"There are undoubtedly tensions that exist between China and Australia, but this is not how you deal with them," Mr Morrison said of the tweet.