Scott Morrison has renewed his plea for “open and regular dialogue” with Beijing as he brushed off a decision by Chinese social media platform WeChat to censor his post about the growing rift between the two countries.
The Australian prime minister warned on Thursday that it was against China’s interest to maintain a freeze on high-level contact, after the German government joined the list of countries that have publicly backed Australia’s stand, and Joe Biden’s incoming national security adviser also pledged support.
It comes as the Senate passed the Morrison government’s proposed foreign veto laws that would give it the power to tear up Victoria’s belt and road deal with China – a step that could further inflame tensions with Beijing. It cleared the Senate with minor technical amendments and needs to go back to the lower house for approval.
Relations have already been tense over Beijing’s actions against a range of Australian export industries – with wine businesses now facing tariffs as high as 200% – and tensions mounted after an inflammatory tweet by a Chinese foreign ministry official this week.
Morrison appealed to the Chinese government to clear the way for high-level talks, which have been frozen since earlier this year after blowback against Australia’s early public calls for an international inquiry into the origins of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“What is most important is [that] despite the events of recent months and weeks and indeed years, Australia remains committed to constructive and open and regular dialogue at a leader and ministerial level to address the tensions are clearly there in the relationship,” he told reporters in Canberra on Thursday.
“It’s in our interest to do that, it’s in the Chinese government’s interest to do that. We remain open to do that. We will be patient. We will continue to be clear. Our national interests have been clearly articulated and the Australian government’s position on those is clearly understood.”
Morrison said he would “leave WeChat to make an explanation of their actions if they choose to make one”, after the popular Chinese social media platform removed his message reaching out to the Chinese Australian community.
Morrison had written 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”.
He also wrote that the “difficult issues” surrounding war crimes allegations were being dealt with in a “transparent and honest way”.
Morrison’s comments were replaced on Wednesday with a message from the social media platform saying the post involved “the use of words, pictures, videos” that would “incite, mislead, and violate objective facts, fabricating social hot topics, distorting historical events, and confusing the public”, the ABC reported.
Comment has been sought from the WeChat owner, Tencent.
The latest flareup in the relationship came after the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian had tweeted a computer-generated image that purported to show an Australian soldier cutting the throat of a child in Afghanistan.
The Guardian has been contacting a range of countries to seek their views, after Morrison said the tweet had diminished the Chinese government’s global standing.
In response to the Guardian’s request for comment, a spokesperson for Germany’s federal foreign office said on Thursday: “We were disconcerted by this tweet.”
The spokesperson said the spreading of such material on an official social media account was unacceptable, and the Australian government was “facing up to its responsibility to investigate alleged crimes by its special forces in an exemplary manner”.
“Proceedings have been initiated to hold those responsible to account,” the German federal foreign office statement said.
“This goes to show that Australia takes human rights and the investigation of alleged crimes seriously and – contrary to others – we very much respect Australia’s approach.”
Biden’s choice for his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, also offered a message of support for Australia on Twitter, signalling that the next administration would “stand shoulder to shoulder with our ally Australia and rally fellow democracies to advance our shared security, prosperity, and values”.
The Australian people have made great sacrifices to protect freedom and democracy around the world. As we have for a century, America will stand shoulder to shoulder with our ally Australia and rally fellow democracies to advance our shared security, prosperity, and values.
— Jake Sullivan (@jakejsullivan) December 2, 2020
Several members of the outgoing Trump administration – which has, over several years, been ratcheting up the US posture of strategic competition with China – also offered their support for Australia’s stand on Wednesday.
At a regular media conference late on Wednesday, a Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman said the image was not a “fabricated photo”, but instead “a graphic created with computer techniques by a young artist based on facts”.
“If some in Australia cannot stand this graphic, then the truth depicted in online photos and videos can only be described as even more horrific,” the spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, said.
Hua said when Australian and American officials spoke about rejecting disinformation, “they should set an example by proving to the world that they haven’t spread any disinformation” about China’s human rights record in Xinjiang.
The Australian Labor leader, Anthony Albanese, reaffirmed on Thursday he supported the government in standing up for Australia’s values and human rights, after Morrison said he was “disappointed but not surprised” with Albanese’s recent comments.
A day after Albanese said Morrison appeared to have presided over a complete breakdown in the relationship with China, the Labor leader told reporters: “Australia should always stand up for our values. The government needs to have a strategy of dealing with this relationship. That’s all I have said.”
Meanwhile the new Liberal National party MP for the Queensland seat of Groom, Garth Hamilton, denounced misinformation circulating about his views on Chinese-Australians.
He described an apparent screenshot circulating on Facebook – which denigrated the Chinese-Australian community and included other offensive statements – as “a fake image purporting to be a post from me”.
Hamilton posted on Facebook on Wednesday: “I would like to be abundantly clear – this is not a post that I have made, nor are these views that I hold. This image is fake.”