Australian leader seeks conciliation in dispute with China

FILE - In this Nov. 17, 2020, file photo, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison reviews an honor guard during a ceremony ahead of a meeting at Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga's official residence in Tokyo. Morrison said Monday, Nov. 30, 2020, a tweet by a Chinese official which shows a fake image of an Australian soldier appearing to slit a child's throat is truly repugnant." (Kiyoshi Ota/Pool Photo via AP, File) (Kiyoshi Ota)

WELLINGTON – A diplomatic war of words between Australia and China over a graphic tweet seemed to finally cool on Thursday as Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison struck a much more conciliatory tone.

Morrison's change in approach came even after he was thwarted in getting his views out directly to Chinese people over the messaging app WeChat, after the Chinese company deleted his post on the grounds it could distort historical events and confuse the public.

China has angrily rejected Morrison's complaints, but its foreign ministry on Thursday declined to comment further on the controversy. Spokesperson Hua Chunying told reporters at a daily briefing that WeChat's management had their “own rules and regulations, and they have the right to handle business concerning WeChat according to their own rules."

Earlier this week, Morrison expressed indignation and anger at the tweet posted by a Chinese official that showed a fake image of a grinning Australian soldier holding a bloodied knife to a child’s throat.

The post took aim at alleged unlawful killings and abuses by Australian soldiers during the conflict in Afghanistan.

Morrison called the tweet “truly repugnant” and “deeply offensive” and demanded an apology from China. But China did not back down, saying that Australia should be the one examining its actions.

On Thursday, Morrison took a much different approach, telling reporters in Canberra that his aim was for the two countries to have a “happy coexistence.”

“My position and my government’s position is to seek constructive engagement," he said. “The relationship with China is a mutually beneficial one. It supports both our countries, it is good for both of our countries.”

China is Australia's largest trading partner.

Morrison said Australia had made its views very clear on both the tweet and the WeChat message.

WeChat is ubiquitous in China and is used for everything from getting news to making electronic payments. The company is held responsible for ensuring content doesn't attract negative attention, and censorship is relatively common.

Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said he was disappointed about both the tweet and the deleted post.

“What the prime minister did in his WeChat message before it was disappointingly deleted was he made it very clear Australia is proud of its servicemen and women who wear the uniform,” Frydenberg said.

The rift between the two nations has grown since the Australian government called for an independent inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus pandemic. China has since imposed tariffs and other restrictions on a number of Australian exports.