UK and US lock in behind Australia in China row

Daniel Hurst in Canberra
·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Simon Dawson/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Simon Dawson/Reuters

The British government has vowed to stand with Australia to “protect our key interests and values” and push back at “disinformation” amid a deepening rift in Canberra’s relationship with Beijing.

The American ambassador to Australia also accused a Chinese foreign ministry official of spreading “disinformation through fabricated images and disingenuous statements” about Australia.

The United Kingdom and the United States are the latest countries to speak out in support of Australia, after France and New Zealand criticised China over an official tweeting a digitally-created image depicting an Australian soldier cutting the throat of a child in Afghanistan.

China has accused Australia of overreacting to the tweet and hyping the issue for domestic political purposes.

When asked about the tweeted image, a spokesperson for the UK’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office told the Guardian the foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, “has made clear we will always stand shoulder to shoulder with Australia to make sure that we protect our key interests and values”.

“Disinformation is an issue we take extremely seriously and we will continue to coordinate closely with Australia and other international partners to ensure our citizens are protected,” the spokesperson said.

Related: Australia demands China explain why it has been singled out on trade restrictions

The Guardian understands the British government believes that China, as a leading member of the international community, should live up to the obligations that come with that. It views the tweeted image as clearly fake and deeply concerning.

When asked in the House of Commons last month about China’s escalating trade actions against Australia, Raab indicated he had regular exchanges with the Australian foreign minister, Marise Payne, and expressed “solidarity”.

Raab said the UK was also working alongside Australia and the other Five Eyes partners – the US, Canada and New Zealand – on issues such as the crackdown on pro-democracy movements in Hong Kong.

The US ambassador to Australia, Arthur Culvahouse, responded to questions from the Guardian by saying the Australian government had “responsibly investigated and disclosed allegations that its soldiers committed crimes in Afghanistan”.

“The world can only wish that the Chinese Communist party were to bring the same degree of transparency and accountability to credible reports of atrocities against the Uighurs in Xinjiang,” Culvahouse, who was appointed by Donald Trump, said in an emailed statement on Wednesday.

Those sentiments were backed by the US State Department’s deputy spokesperson, Cale Brown, who described the Afghanistan tweet as “a new low, even for the Chinese Communist party”.

The Florida senator Marco Rubio wrote to the chief executive of Twitter, Jack Dorsey, to ask why the tweet had not been taken down. A Twitter spokesperson has previously said the image contained within the tweet had been “marked as sensitive media”, meaning it is hidden behind a warning message by default.

On Tuesday, Scott Morrison turned to the popular Chinese social media platform WeChat to reach out to the Chinese Australian community.

The prime minister sought to make clear that the escalating tensions between the two governments – which led last week to the imposition of hefty tariffs on Australian wine – were not a reflection on Chinese Australians.

Morrison wrote that “the post of a false image of an Australian soldier does not diminish our respect for and appreciation of our Chinese Australian community or indeed our friendship with the people of China”.

The prime minister said the “difficult issues” that had arisen in the Inspector-General of the Australian Defence Force’s report into alleged war crimes by special forces soldiers in Afghanistan were being dealt with in a “transparent and honest way”.

Earlier this week, when he demanded an apology from the Chinese government over the tweet by Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, Morrison said the dispute was broader than just the two countries, and that other nations were watching.

Zhao’s tweet seized on the findings of a recent report from a four-year official investigation into the conduct of Australian special forces soldiers in Afghanistan, known as the Brereton report.

Another Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson, Hua Chunying, held up the front page of the Brereton report at Tuesday’s regular press briefing in Beijing as she declared that the “computer-generated graphic” was not a case of disinformation.

“The Australian side … is under immense criticism and condemnation from the international community for the ruthless killing of Afghan innocents by some of its soldiers, but the Australian side wants to turn that into a tough-on-China position,” Hua said.

The Chinese embassy in Canberra 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 rage and roar of some Australian politicians and media is nothing but misreading of and overreaction to Mr Zhao’s tweet,” an embassy spokesperson said.

The former senior Australian foreign affairs official Richard Maude told the Guardian on Tuesday there was no end in sight to the rift in the relationship with Beijing, 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,” Maude said.

Australia and China have been at odds over a number of issues over the past few years, including the Turnbull government’s decision to exclude Chinese telcos Huawei and ZTE from Australia’s 5G network and its introduction of foreign interference laws that were seen as targeting China’s activities.

But the relationship deteriorated sharply in April when the Morrison government issued an early call for an independent international inquiry into the origin and handling of Covid-19 and floated the idea of international weapons inspector-style powers for pandemic investigations.

It triggered a furious reaction from Beijing, which has subsequently taken trade actions against a range of Australian exports including barley, red meat and wine, citing technical grounds.