Australia has demanded China apologise for posting a fake picture on a government Twitter account that depicted an Australian soldier murdering an Afghan child.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said Beijing should be “utterly ashamed” for sharing the “repugnant” image.
It comes amid escalating political tensions between the two countries.
The image referred to alleged war crimes by some Australian soldiers.
Warning: This story contains an image some people might find distressing.
Earlier this month, a report found “credible information” that 25 Australian soldiers were involved in the murders of 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners between 2009 and 2013.
The findings from the Australian Defence Force (ADF) inquiry sparked widespread condemnation, and are now being investigated by police.
On Monday, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lijian Zhao posted a fabricated image which portrayed an Australian soldier with a bloody knife next to a child. The child is seen holding a lamb.
The image appears to be a reference to previously reported allegations that elite Australian soldiers used knives to murder two 14-year-old Afghan boys. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported the ADF report did not substantiate those allegations.
However it did find “credible evidence” of unlawful killings and a “warrior culture” within elite units. The allegations included that junior soldiers were encouraged to shoot prisoners for their first kill.
Mr Zhao’s tweet said: “Shocked by murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts, and call for holding them accountable.”
Australia has requested Twitter remove the post from its platform, describing it as “disinformation”.
Mr Morrison described the post as “truly repugnant, deeply offensive, utterly outrageous”.
“The Chinese government should be totally ashamed of this post. It diminishes them in the world’s eyes,” he said.
“It is a false image and terrible slur on our defence forces.”
He added that Australia had established a transparent process to investigate the alleged war crimes, as was expected of a “democratic, liberal” country,
Mr Morrison went on to acknowledge that there are “undoubtedly” tensions between the two nations, but said: “This is not how you deal with it.”
He warned Beijing that other countries around the world were watching its actions towards Australia.
Bilateral relations have rapidly deteriorated this year after Australia led calls for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, and ongoing discussion about Beijing’s alleged interference in Australian affairs.
In recent months, China has imposed a series of economic blows – including trade stoppages and tariffs – on about a dozen Australian imports including wine, barley and beef.
Australia has described China’s actions as “economic coercion”.
This is a new low in an already very tense relationship between the two key trading partners.
Last week Mr Zhao said the war crimes report “fully exposed the hypocrisy of the human rights and freedom these Western countries are always chanting”.
But his tweet shocked Scott Morrison into his most undiplomatic language yet. The prime minister said the Chinese government should be “ashamed” of the post and described it as an “outrageous and disgusting slur”.
It’s yet another indication of how bad things have become between Canberra and Beijing, at a time when relations are extremely tense and Australian exporters are on tenterhooks about what other tariffs they can expect from China amid the escalating spat.
The prime minister acknowledged that the two countries have had their problems but this tweet, he said, had gone too far.
Earlier this month, China’s embassy in Australia circulated a list to local media outlining 14 policy areas where they said Australia had acted in a way that aggravated relations.
These included Australia’s decision to block Chinese investment projects, ban Chinese tech firm Huawei from its 5G tender, and “incessant wanton interference in China’s Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan affairs”.
Australia has said it will not change its policy positions.
On Monday, Mr Morrison confirmed that Australia’s requests for meetings with senior Chinese ministers continued to be rebuffed.