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

A fake image tweeted by a Chinese diplomat sparked a massive rift between Australia and China – and brought worldwide attention to the real war crimes committed by the Australian military in Afghanistan.

Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry official who seems to be happy to troll his opponents, tweeted a horrible picture Sunday of a smiling Australian soldier holding a knife around the neck of an Afghan child. The child’s face was covered by the Australian flag in the image, and underneath is the caption: “Have no fear, we are coming to bring you peace!”

The forged computer-generated image was created by Chinese nationalist artist Wuheqilin, but he was inspired by an actual event.

Australia last month released the Brereton Report, the result of a four-year investigation into war crimes committed by the country’s elite special air services during the fighting in Afghanistan.

Among the shocking allegations in the report were soldiers involved in the killing of 39 Afghan civilians, none of whom took place during the battle. Senior commanders are said to have instigated junior officers to kill prisoners in a process called “blood,” and weapons have been placed on dead captives to justify their executions.

The report sent shockwaves through Australian audiences, but it did not dominate global news. That is, until Zhao’s trolling tweet turned the subject of Australian war crimes into an international diplomatic row, forcing the Australian government to respond and toss the story into the global headlines.

“It is absolutely outrageous and it cannot be justified in any way,” said the Prime Minister of Australia Scott morrison told reporters on Monday. “The Chinese government should be completely ashamed of this post. It diminishes them in the eyes of the world. … It is a false image and a terrible insult against our great defense forces. Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne also demanded an apology from Beijing.

It probably won’t happen. “The Australian side reacted so strongly to my colleague’s tweet,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said in a briefing Monday. “Why so? Do they think the ruthless murder of Afghan civilians is justified but condemnation of such ruthless brutality is not? Afghan lives matter!

Of course, China which blows up another nation’s human rights abuses is rather wealthy, not least because it has imprisoned up to 2 million Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps. This is why it’s best to watch the spit generated by Twitter less as Beijing expresses genuine concern over war crimes and more as part of a diplomatic and commercial struggle of several years between China and Australia – which won’t go away anytime soon.

“Zhao’s act represents a further escalation of the war of words between Canberra and Beijing, and this against the backdrop of the deterioration of bilateral relations in recent years,” said Adam Ni of the China Policy Center in the Australian capital. “It’s probably the worst in a long time – decades, in fact.

Australia opposed a rising China. China doesn’t like it.

Australia has never liked China’s heightened assertiveness to the world, and especially its region. For example, the Chinese army started construction of artificial islands in the South China Sea to assert a land claim over the disputed water body. Australia, as one of the most powerful players in the Asia Pacific region, has not been too kind to this.

Beijing’s political aggression has also bothered Canberra. In 2017, Australia prohibits 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 Chinese telecommunications giants Huawei and ZTE from its 5G network.

Their relationship has only worsened in 2020.

Australia in April, called for an inquiry into China’s handling of the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when Beijing obscured evidence of a growing problem after the virus emerged in Wuhan. China bristled, with the state Global Times in April, accusing Prime Minister Morrison of “denigrating the pandas” and denigrating the Australian government’s adventurism to play with this comprehensive and mutually beneficial strategic partnership, is in defiance of rational thought and common sense.

The following month, China retaliated by reducing imports of Australian beef and imposing tariffs on more than 80 percent of Australian barley imports into China. Then in November, Beijing went further by imposing tariffs of up to 200 percent – this is not a typo – on Australian wine. Some experts expect further escalation in trade, with China likely targeting Australia sugar, lobster, coal and copper ore.

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

Nonetheless, the latest row has shone the spotlight on an uncomfortable reality for Australia: the horrific actions of some members of its military during the war in Afghanistan.

What the Australian Army Report Says on Alleged War Crimes

The Brereton report published on November 10, officially titled “Inspector General of the Australian Defense Forces investigative report on Afghanistan», Full of damning revelations. Three in particular stand out from the document’s 465 pages, many of which are in the public version.

The main allegation is that 25 current and former Australian Special Forces members killed 39 people and “cruelly treated” two others, out of a total of 23 incidents in Afghanistan.

“None of these incidents correspond to questionable decisions taken under pressure in the heat of the moment,” the report read. “The cases in which it has been found that there is credible information about a war crime are those in which it was or should have been clear that the person killed was a non-combatant.”

One of the incidents – heavily redacted in the document – is “possibly the most shameful episode in Australian military history,” according to the report. Another claim is that there was a culture in special forces serving in Afghanistan of “blood” of young officers, essentially a macabre 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 successfully kill the soldier for the first time, in a practice known as ‘bloodshed’,” the report describes. “This would happen after the target compound was secured and local nationals were secured as ‘people under control’. Typically, the patrol commander would take one person under control and the subordinate member, who would then be responsible for killing the person under control.

The third major allegation, related to the second, is that the officers placed weapons – called “disposables” – on the corpses to form part of a cover for the murder. This process was “created for operational reporting purposes and to hijack review.” This was reinforced by a code of silence, ”reads the report.

Obviously, there were larger cultural issues within Australia’s elite forces serving in Afghanistan. Tuesday the Goalkeeper Australia revealed a live photo from 2009 showing an anonymous soldier drinking the prosthetic leg of a dead Taliban member at an authorized military bar in Afghanistan. Another actual photo showed two soldiers dancing with the same leg.

While China may be one of the worst messengers to castigate Australia’s wartime treatment of Afghans, the horrors Beijing points to are very, very real.