European Union condemns China over ‘irresponsible’ tweet about Australian military

Regional bloc says it has raised the issue directly with Chinese vice-foreign minister

The European Union has blasted China over an “irresponsible, insensitive” tweet about Australian military personnel as the regional bloc revealed it has raised the issue directly with a Chinese vice-foreign minister.

A senior EU official told the Guardian the EU regretted the recent deterioration in ties between China and Australia – which has seen Beijing take a series of trade actions against Australian exports – and called on the two sides to “re-engage in dialogue, avoid escalation and unilateral pressure”.

Japan’s embassy in Canberra also reiterated on Friday that “trade should never be used as a tool to apply political pressure”, and Japan would “duly consider how to exercise our third party rights if Australia proceeds with their case” at the World Trade Organization against China’s barley tariffs.

The statements from the EU and Japan come after the United Kingdom, the United States, Germany, France and New Zealand criticised the actions of a Chinese foreign ministry official official in tweeting a digitally created image depicting an Australian soldier cutting the throat of a child in Afghanistan.

“We consider the deliberate dissemination of a fabricated image via social media accounts affiliated with China’s ministry of foreign affairs to be irresponsible, insensitive and not at all constructive, particularly given the subject in question,” Nabila Massrali, the EU’s spokesperson for foreign affairs and security policy, told the Guardian on Friday.

“Such behaviour and use of information tools to disseminate fabricated images or information cannot be justified.”

Massrali said the Australian government had conducted an investigation into claims of serious misconduct by Australian military personnel in Afghanistan, and was taking action to address its findings.

Massrali said the EU had raised the issue during its political dialogue with China on Tuesday. Those talks occurred between a deputy secretary general of the European External Action Service and a Chinese vice-foreign minister.

Australian government ministers have been unable to secure talks with their Chinese government counterparts since earlier this year, when Beijing objected to Canberra’s early forthright calls for a global Covid-19 inquiry.

Chinese authorities have taken a series of actions against Australian export sectors, including barley and wine, which have been hit with tariffs. The Australian government has said it will not succumb to economic pressure but has stepped up its public calls for “open and regular” high-level dialogue with Beijing.

Relations with China were discussed during the recent virtual meeting between EU leaders and Scott Morrison, the Australian prime minister, on 26 November.

“More broadly, we are following developments closely and regret the recent deterioration in China/Australia relations,” Massrali said. “We hope that China and Australia can re-engage in dialogue, avoid escalation and unilateral pressure.”

Earlier this week, when Morrison 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.

But China’s deputy head of mission in Australia, Wang Xining, said Morrison’s elevation of the tweet issue had the the side-effect of increasing attention of the war crimes allegations detailed in the Brereton report.

“People wonder why a national leader would have such a strong opinion to an artwork by a normal young artist in China,” Wang told the ABC in a brief interview on Friday.

Wang also argued the list provided by the Chinese embassy to the media last month – which had been characterised as a list of 14 grievances – was not a definitive list of demands for Australia, but “just some examples of what we disagree with”.

His comments came after the Morrison government insisted the items on the list were non-negotiable because they went to matters of Australia’s sovereignty. The list included the government’s criticism of China over human rights in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and its blocking of Chinese investment proposals.

Wang also rejected claims of a coordinated trade campaign “targeting” Australian goods, and he pointed to Australia’s own anti-dumping actions against a number of Chinese products.

He was speaking to the ABC after attending a speech by Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, who stressed that Australia would be “true to our values” and respect rules and norms that had stood the test of time.

Payne told the foreign diplomatic corps in Canberra on Friday that Australia would not be “a bystander” in seeking to shape an Indo-Pacific region that was prosperous, resilient and inclusive. She said reforms to the rules-based order should be done through negotiation not the exercise of power.

China maintains it is up to Australia to take steps to foster a more conducive atmosphere for dialogue between the two countries.

In Canberra the attorney general, Christian Porter, said while the relationship “requires improvement” there was nothing in particular in recent times that Australia would have done any differently.

Citing Morrison’s statements that Australia did not want to contain China economically, Porter argued the foundations for better ties were in place but patience was needed.

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.

At a regular media conference late on Thursday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman raised concerns about cooperation between Australia and the US to develop and test hypersonic missiles, arguing it could contribute to a regional arms race.

“We don’t intend to make Australia our target,” the spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said. “China urges Australia to review its security interest needs in an objective manner, enhance trust between regional countries, and contribute to regional security and stability instead of doing the opposite.”

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