A staff member sorts Australian wine in a bonded warehouse in Nantong in China's Jiangsu province. Photo: AFP

Australia’s prime minister angrily denounced a “repugnant,” “outrageous” and “appalling” tweet from a top Chinese government spokesman Monday and demanded Beijing formally apologize.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian sparked the outrage when he posted a staged image of a man dressed as an Australian soldier holding a bloody knife to an Afghan child’s throat.

Australian prosecutors are now investigating 19 members of the country’s military in connection with alleged war crimes committed by special forces in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2016.

Morrison called the tweet – from an official Chinese government account – an “outrageous and disgusting slur” against the Australian armed forces and called on Twitter to take it down.

“It is utterly outrageous and it cannot be justified on any basis whatsoever. The Chinese government should be totally ashamed of this post,” Morrison said of the tweet. “It diminishes them in the world’s eyes.”

Asked about the tweet at a regular press briefing, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying replied: “With Australian soldiers committing such atrocious crimes, shouldn’t the Australian government feel ashamed?”

She said Australia should “make a formal apology to the Afghan people,” adding that “it is a fact that Australian soldiers brutally slaughtered innocent civilians in Afghanistan.”

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani said earlier in November that Morrison had called him personally to express his “deepest sorrow” over the allegations.

Relations between Australia and China are in free fall. 

China has introduced a string of economic sanctions on Australian goods and state-controlled news outlets have repeatedly attacked Australia over a range of issues.

The ill feeling appears to have been prompted by Canberra’s decision to push back on Beijing’s growing power in the region, to crack down on Chinese influence operations in Australia and to call for an independent investigation into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“This sort of conduct is not conducive to any relationship,” Morrison said of the tweet. “That’s why I think it’s so important in our mutual interests that this egregious act be dealt with.”

‘Wolf warrior’ diplomacy

The Chinese government spokesman had tweeted that he was “shocked by the murder of Afghan civilians & prisoners by Australian soldiers. We strongly condemn such acts, & call for holding them accountable.”

China, a one-party authoritarian state, has been accused of systemic, wide-ranging human rights violations for decades, most notably in Tibet and Xinjiang.

The post is the latest example of a new breed of aggressive Chinese government communications with foreign countries, which pundits have termed “wolf warrior” diplomacy.

It comes at a sensitive time, after the Australian government published a damning investigation into allegations its elite troops “unlawfully killed” 39 civilians and prisoners in Afghanistan.

Government investigators have recommended 19 individuals be referred to the police, compensation be paid to the families of victims and that the military carry out reforms.

Last week, the Australian army moved to discharge 13 soldiers for their role in the alleged atrocities and prosecutions are expected.