Prime Minister Scott Morrison has warned Coalition colleagues against further amplifying China’s incendiary social media attack on Australia.
A senior Chinese official inflamed tensions after publishing a doctored image of an Australian soldier holding a bloody knife to the throat of an Afghan child.
The provocative piece of propaganda referenced allegations of war crimes including murder and torture by Australian troops in Afghanistan.
Mr Morrison – who is still in isolation after his recent trip to Japan – acknowledged the serious situation in bilateral relations when he joined a Coalition party room meeting in Canberra via video on Tuesday.
He said the government made clear its response to the post.
“That doesn’t need any further amplification,” he said.
“Our work is focusing on establishing dialogue that allows us to steadily work through issues as governments.”
On Monday, he attacked the post – which was a reference to alleged war crimes of Australian troops in Afghanistan – describing it as “repugnant” and a “slur”.
He called a snap media conference minutes after the tweet was posted, demanding China apologise and Twitter remove it.
Neither was forthcoming, with the Chinese foreign ministry doubling down and suggesting Australia should do some soul-searching over the actions of its special forces.
Twitter has also refused to budge, instead releasing a statement saying that Lijian Zhao’s account was labelled an official government account – which it said gave the public context to “better inform their interpretation of its intent”.
“For world leaders, politicians, and official government accounts, direct interactions with fellow public figures, comments on political issues of the day, or foreign policy saber-rattling on economic or military issues are generally not in violation of the Twitter Rules,” the statement said.
Twitter also said the image had been marked as “sensitive media”, but as of 2.30pm Tuesday (AEDT), the tweet – which is pinned to the top of Mr Zhao’s account – had no such mark.
Mr Morrison told the party room on Tuesday that Australia’s objectives were to uphold national interest and values, while also striving to maintain a working relationship with China.
Alongside the diplomatic stoush are growing trade tensions, with China blocking or taxing several Australian export industries.
This move is seen as retaliation for Australian demands for an investigation into COVID-19 and speaking out on human rights issues in China.
New Zealand has raised similar human rights issues but has yet to be attacked on the trade front.
New Zealand weighs in on China spat
On Tuesday, NZ PM Jacinda Ardern said she said raised concerns about the doctored image with China. She said the image warranted her government making its own protest.
“It was an unfactual post and of course that would concern us so that is something we’ve raised directly,” she said in Wellington on Tuesday.
“Whilst that is an exchange that’s happening between Australia and China, it will of course tip into spaces where as a general principle we may have concerns and will raise those.
“In this case an image has been used that is that is not factually correct. It’s not a genuine image so we have raised that directly with Chinese authorities.”
Ms Ardern said she wouldn’t let the Australia-China clashes stop her government speaking out on issues of concern, saying the Tweet didn’t directly involve New Zealand but “you could characterise what’s occurring in Hong Kong or Xinjiang in that way”.
“In international relations, we will often have an interest regardless of whether it’s on our soil,” she said.
“For us though we will always raise [concerns] in a way that’s in keeping with our diplomatic relationships.”
Labor has joined the Coalition in condemning the “cheap and offensive” image.
“I think it’s very important that we respond in a calm and measured way and make very clear what we believe is acceptable,” Labor foreign affairs spokeswoman Penny Wong told the ABC on Tuesday.
“The offensive doctored photograph is not the behaviour of a responsible, mature, international country.”
Afghanistan’s ministry of foreign affairs has released a statement confirming it is investigating the image.
“The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan believes that both Australia and China are key players in building and maintaining international and regional consensus on peace and development in Afghanistan,” it said.
“Afghanistan hopes to maintain and strengthen cooperation with the two countries.”