France and New Zealand have joined Australia in criticising the Chinese government for its inflammatory tweet about Australian soldiers, as a former senior diplomat called for more countries to take a stand against Beijing’s “coercion”.
The tensions between China and Australia showed no sign of abating on Tuesday, with the Chinese embassy in Canberra accusing the Morrison government of overreacting to the social media post and of stoking the issue for domestic political purposes.
Chinese state media also claimed that Australia was treating “China’s goodwill with evil”, while an editor of the nationalistic Global Times tweeted that Australia “can’t even be counted as a paper tiger, it’s only a paper cat”.
New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, said her government had directly raised concerns with China over the “unfactual” image attached to the tweet by Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian.
The French government described the tweet as unworthy of diplomatic methods, and as an insult to all countries whose armed forces had been engaged in Afghanistan.
Zhao’s tweet seized on the findings of a recent report from a four-year-long official investigation into the conduct of Australian special forces soldiers in Afghanistan, but included a digitally altered image that appeared to show an Australian solider cutting the throat of a child holding a sheep, with other body shapes hidden below a large Australian flag.
The Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, had demanded the Chinese government apologise and take down the “repugnant” tweet but the foreign ministry said it was Australia that should say sorry to the Afghan people.
The National Security Council in the Trump White House tweeted: “Australian wine will be featured at a White House holiday reception this week. Pity vino lovers in China who, due to Beijing’s coercive tariffs on Aussie vintners, will miss out.”
Former senior Australian foreign affairs official Richard Maude said there was no end in sight to the rift in the relationship with Beijing, after a series of trade actions against Australia this year, and it was a “pretty lonely and tough battle for a middle power to be in on its own”.
“What we really need is enough countries to be willing to publicly take a stand,” said Maude, who helped oversee the development of the Australian government’s foreign policy white paper.
“Multilateralising pushback against China, where this is possible, might help. It’s a good place to start the China discussion with the incoming Biden administration, and with Europe.”
Maude noted that the debate about dealing with a more aggressive China was shifting quickly in Europe and Biden had vowed to work more closely with allies and partners. This could potentially lead to coordinated action to help protect like-minded democracies from aspects of China’s behaviours, he said.
“At the moment China’s not really bearing any cost, from their perspective, from leaning on us so hard. It would help us if that cost is a little higher.”
He said the generational challenge for Australia, and other countries, was whether it was possible “to find a model of co-existence with an authoritarian and nationalist power that believes it can now act without restraint and bend smaller countries to its will”.
Maude, who is now a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said the prospects of coexistence did not look hopeful at the current time, but it was too soon to give up on the possibility of a more stable but limited relationship.
“Cool determination” should be the mantra, and “not everything China does requires an equal response”.
“Our objective should continue to be to protect ourselves where this is necessary while remaining open to trade and other cooperation where this is mutually beneficial,” he said.
Maude said while China never admitted to mistakes, “perhaps the best we can hope for is that Beijing realises it has overreached and, when the dust settles a little, finds an opportunity to open the dialogue the prime minister has called for”.
Maude added that Australian businesses had been on the frontline of the trade dispute and “may also need more support from government” to weather the financial impact.
The call came as former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull urged Morrison to hold his nerve and not give into “bullying” from China, arguing the range of trade actions taken against Australia were a “pressure play”.
“Unless there is a change in attitude in Beijing, tensions are going to continue indefinitely,” Turnbull said during a McGrathNicol webinar.
“I think the thing that will change this period of tension is not some backdown or grovelling or apology from Australia … but simply the Communist Party of China realising their tactics are not working.”
But Labor premier Mark McGowan said businesses were worried about the spiralling relationship and while the foreign ministry’s tweet was unacceptable, it was now time to “get back and talk and have cool heads in the relationship”.
A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy urged the Australian government to “face up to the crux of the current setback of bilateral relationship and take constructive practical steps to help bring it back to the right track”.
The spokesperson said that “the rage and roar of some Australian politicians and media is nothing but misreading of and overreaction to Mr Zhao’s tweet”.
“One [purpose] 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. There may be another attempt to stoke domestic nationalism.”
The federal opposition’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, said the government should “respond calmly and strategically rather than emotionally” to what she termed a “deliberate provocation” from China.
“We have major issues in our trading relationship, which has significant economic consequences. We should respond calmly, we should respond strategically and we should respond with unity.”
Ryan Manuel, a Hong Kong-based China academic, said Zhao would not have been instructed by anyone to send his tweet, and nor would he be condemned for it.
Manuel said the tweet “represents a response to a government direction/strategy, which is to be against Australia”.
“Zhao knows the incentives (Twitter outrage got him promoted only a year ago) and so he tried a stab in the dark. It succeeded, and so he and many others will keep using the same methods,” said Manuel.
Morrison’s response had bolstered Zhao’s reach and impact, he added.
Additional reporting by Helen Davidson