The US has stepped into the widening dispute between Australia and China over war crimes in Afghanistan, accusing Beijing of spreading disinformation.
The escalation comes days after an image of an Australian soldier holding a bloodied knife to the throat of an Afghan child sparked outrage.
Shared on Twitter by a senior Chinese official, it referenced allegations of war crimes, including murder and torture, by Australian troops in Afghanistan.
On Monday, an angry Prime Minister Scott Morrison described the image as “repugnant” and demanded China apologise and take it down. Neither has been forthcoming.
Instead, by Wednesday China had fired another salvo in its war of words with Australia, with the state-affiliated Global Times publishing a cartoon showing a kangaroo next to a bloodied knife.
Chinese state media have used the images and cartoons to openly criticise Australia over the findings of the Brereton report, demanding the federal government apologise to Afghanistan.
A few of Australia’s most important allies have weighed in on the original tweet, with New Zealand, Britain and France all condemning the “offensive” imagery.
On Wednesday, in response to questions from the ABC, the US Ambassador to Australia Arthur Culvahouse Jr also defended the Morrison government.
Mr Culvahouse accused China’s Foreign Ministry of “[spreading] disinformation through fabricated images and disingenuous statements” about Australia.
He also said Australia had taken steps to investigate war crimes in Afghanistan, and called on China to show similar transparency.
“The world can only wish that the Chinese Communist Party were to bring the same degree of transparency and accountability to credible reports of atrocities against the Uighurs in Xinjiang.”
The US State Department has also backed Australia, with deputy spokesperson Cale Brown accusing China of “coercive diplomacy”.
“Its hypocrisy is obvious to all. While it doctors images on Twitter to attack other nations, the CCP prevents its own citizens from reading their posts,” Mr Brown said.
The latest cartoon, which appeared in The Global Times late on Tuesday, is accompanied by an opinion article that urges Mr Morrison to “take full responsibility for the deteriorating relationship with China”.
“Australia’s hypocrisy and double standard on human rights and so-called freedom of speech have again made waves in its relations with China,” it said.
“The country that owes an apology is Australia – to China. And to Afghanistan first and foremost for slaughtering their innocent people.
“It should also apologise to the Chinese artist, whose work was groundlessly smeared as a ‘false image’.
“It needs to seriously reassess the damage done its own international optics caused by this double standard outburst regarding ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘human rights’.”
On Tuesday, with state premiers speaking out about their fears of deteriorating relations with Australia’s biggest trading partner, Mr Morrison urged his Coalition colleagues against “amplification” of the issue.
But the damage appeared to have already been done.
China accuses Australian politicians of overreacting
The Chinese embassy in Canberra accused the PM of “another attempt to stoke domestic nationalism”.
It said the “rage and roar” of some Australian politicians was a “misreading of and overreaction to” the social media post.
The embassy also described an official complaint lodged by Australia’s foreign affairs secretary as unwarranted and unacceptable.
“The accusations made are simply to serve two purposes. One is to deflect public attention from the horrible atrocities by certain Australian soldiers. The other is to blame China for the worsening of bilateral ties,” it said.
Then came the new cartoon in The Global Times. Posted late on Tuesday, it was accompanied by a defence of Chinese artist Fu Yu – known as Wuheqilin – who created the original image shared on Twitter.
“I was only using my work to record what had happened. I see it as my responsibility to record truth,” Wuheqilin told the outlet.
The Global Times said Mr Morrison “loses his cool over a diplomat and computer graphic artist with just one social media post”.
“The post was against the atrocities not the country per se,” it said.
“Yet the Australian government should put those guilty on trial – not drop the diplomatic ball with a knee-jerk reaction and misconstrue the cartoon as ‘anti-Australia propaganda’.”
Belt and Road initiative remains unhindered
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has also condemned the original Chinese tweet, but said it would not sway him from his state’s adoption of the controversial Belt and Road Initiative agreement with China.
“I would hope the rhetoric, the commentary, social media posts, comes to an end,” he said.
“As challenging as it is, as appalling as that behaviour is, we do need to find a way to work through this.”