Australia’s government had a minor meltdown last week, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison calling an impromptu press conference to demand an apology for a “repugnant” Twitter post by a Chinese government spokesperson that contained a doctored image of an Australian soldier holding a knife to an Afghan child’s throat. The image, which Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Zhao Lijian tweeted from his verified account, had a caption that read, “Don’t be afraid, we are coming to bring you peace.” Zhao’s accompanying text in the Twitter post expressed shock at the death of Afghan civilians and prisoners at Australian hands, calling for accountability.
A week earlier, the Australian government had released the findings of an official inquiry that documented the murders of 39 Afghan civilians or prisoners by Australian special forces soldiers. Known as the Brereton Report, it was the result of a four-and-a-half-year investigation into allegations of Australian war crimes in Afghanistan. Police investigations into the atrocities described in the report are forthcoming.
Morrison’s anger at Zhao’s grotesque provocation was certainly justified, but that didn’t make it a good idea to hold a press conference. China’s ambassador to Australia should have been called in for a private dressing down by a senior official, but instead, it looked like the nation’s prime minister had been goaded by a mid-ranking Chinese bureaucrat into demanding an apology he was never going to get. What should have been a firm but quiet statement of Australia’s disgust at Zhao’s indecency became a test of strength that Australia couldn’t win.