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China and Australia are in a nasty diplomatic spat over a fake tweet — and real war crimes

Australia released a report on alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. China trolled Australia on Twitter about it — and Canberra took the bait.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison holds a news conference in the Blue Room at Parliament House on November 12, 2020, in Canberra, Australia.
Sam Mooy/Getty Images

A fake image tweeted by a Chinese diplomat has caused a massive rift between Australia and China — and has focused global attention on real war crimes the Australian military committed in Afghanistan.

Zhao Lijian, a Chinese Foreign Ministry official who seems to rejoice in trolling his opponents, tweeted a gruesome picture on Sunday of a grinning Australian soldier holding a knife to an Afghan child’s neck. The child’s face was covered by Australia’s flag in the image, and below it is the caption: “Don’t be afraid, we are coming to bring you peace!”

The doctored, computer-generated image was created by Chinese nationalist artist Wuheqilin, but it was inspired by a real event.

Last month, Australia released the Brereton report, the result of a four-year inquiry into war crimes committed by the nation’s elite Special Air Services while fighting in Afghanistan.

Among the report’s shocking allegations was that soldiers were involved in the murder of 39 Afghan civilians, none of which occurred during battle. Senior commanders allegedly prompted junior officers to kill prisoners in a process called “blooding,” and weapons were planted on the dead captives to justify their executions.

The report sent shock waves through the Australian public, but it didn’t dominate global news. That is, until Zhao’s trolling tweet turned the subject of Australian war crimes into an international diplomatic spat, forcing the Australian government to respond and launching the story into the global headlines.

“It is utterly outrageous and it cannot be justified on any basis whatsoever,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters on Monday. “The Chinese government should be utterly ashamed of this post. It diminishes them in the world’s eyes. ... It is a false image and a terrible slur on our great defense forces.” Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne also demanded an apology from Beijing.

That isn’t likely to happen. “The Australian side has been reacting so strongly to my colleague’s tweet,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said during a Monday briefing. “Why is that? Do they think that their merciless killing of Afghan civilians is justified but the condemnation of such ruthless brutality is not? Afghan lives matter!”

Of course, China blasting another nation’s human rights violations is rather rich, not least because it has imprisoned up to 2 million Uighur Muslims in concentration camps. Which is why it’s best to look at the Twitter-instigated spat less as Beijing expressing genuine concern over war crimes and more as part of a years-long diplomatic and trade fight between China and Australia — one that isn’t going away anytime soon.

“The act by Zhao represents a further escalation in the war of words between Canberra and Beijing, and this is in the context of deteriorating bilateral relations over the last few years,” said Adam Ni of the China Policy Centre in Australia’s capital. “It’s probably the worst it’s been in a long time — in decades, in fact.”

Australia has opposed a rising China. China doesn’t like that.

Australia has never liked China’s increased assertiveness in the world, and particularly in its region. For example, China’s military started building artificial islands in the South China Sea in order to assert a territorial claim to the disputed body of water. Australia, as one of the Asia-Pacific region’s most powerful players, didn’t take too kindly to that.

Beijing’s political aggressiveness also bothered Canberra. In 2017, Australia banned all foreign donations to political campaigns after reports showed China had tried to influence the nation’s political process. The following year, Australia became the first country to block the Chinese telecommunication giants Huawei and ZTE from its 5G network.

Their relations have only worsened in 2020.

Australia in April called for an investigation into China’s handling of the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when Beijing obfuscated evidence of a growing problem after the virus originated in Wuhan. China bristled, with the state-run Global Times newspaper in April accusing Prime Minister Morrison of “panda bashing” and blasting the Australian “government’s adventurism to fiddle with this mutually beneficial comprehensive strategic partnership is in defiance of rational thought and common sense.”

The following month, China retaliated by slashing Australian beef imports and placing tariffs on more than 80 percent of Australia’s barley imports to China. Then in November, Beijing took it a step further by imposing tariffs up to 200 percent — that’s not a typo — on Australian wine. Some experts expect further trade escalations, with China likely targeting Australian sugar, lobster, coal, and copper ore.

The Australian newspaper this week said Canberra-Beijing relations were at their lowest point in 50 years. At this moment there’s no off-ramp for the increasing strife, but it’s clear Australia isn’t happy about the situation. “There are undoubtedly tensions that exist between China and Australia,” Morrison said in his Monday statement. “But this is not how you deal with them.”

Nevertheless, the latest spat has shined a spotlight on an uncomfortable reality for Australia: the gruesome actions of some members of its military during the war in Afghanistan.

What the Australian military’s report on alleged war crimes says

The Brereton report released on November 10, officially titled the “Inspector-General of the Australian Defense Force Afghanistan Inquiry Report,” is chock-full of damning revelations. Three in particular stand out within the document’s 465 pages, many of which are redacted in the public version.

The main allegation is that 25 current or former members of Australia’s special forces killed 39 individuals and “cruelly treated” two others, in a total of 23 incidents in Afghanistan.

“None of these are incidents of disputable decisions made under pressure in the heat of battle,” the report reads. “The cases in which it has been found that there is credible information of a war crime are ones in which it was or should have been plain that the person killed was a non-combatant.”

One of the incidents — heavily redacted in the document — is “possibly the most disgraceful episode in Australia’s military history,” per the report. Another allegation is that there was a culture in the special forces serving in Afghanistan of “blooding” younger officers, essentially a grisly form of hazing and initiation.

“There is credible information that junior soldiers were required by their patrol commanders to shoot a prisoner, in order to achieve the soldier’s first kill, in a practice that was known as ‘blooding,’” the report describes. “This would happen after the target compound had been secured, and local nationals had been secured as ‘persons under control.’ Typically, the patrol commander would take a person under control and the junior member, who would then be directed to kill the person under control.”

The third major allegation, related to the second, is that officers placed weapons — known as “throwdowns” — on the dead bodies to form part of a cover story for the killing. That process was “created for the purposes of operational reporting and to deflect scrutiny. This was reinforced with a code of silence,” the report reads.

Clearly, there were larger cultural problems within Australia’s elite forces serving in Afghanistan. On Tuesday, the Guardian Australia revealed an actual 2009 photo showing an unnamed soldier drinking out of a dead Taliban member’s prosthetic leg in an authorized military bar in Afghanistan. Another real picture showed two soldiers dancing with the same leg.

While China may be among the worst messengers to lambaste Australia’s treatment of Afghans during the war, the horrors Beijing is pointing at are very, very real.

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