War crimes or trade dispute: What’s behind the latest spat between Australia and China?
Human rights in Afghanistan have again come to the fore with accusations Australian soldiers committed atrocities while stationed in the country.
A four-year investigation concluded that Australian Special Forces members murdered 39 Afghan civilians and prisoners.
Australian forces are in Afghanistan to fight terrorism and have been accused by China of hypocrisy, as China says such wrongdoings runs counter to its humanitarian mission.
However, China, known to play fast and loose with human rights itself, also has its fair share of hypocrisy accusations.
But as it often happens, what was the human rights problem on the outside, unveiled a long history of confrontation between the two powers.
War Crimes Report
The official government report into the Australian Special Forces involvement in extrajudicial executions of Afghans was released last month. The report was prepared by the commission headed by the Inspector General of the Australian Armed Forces Paul Brereton. The paper is packed with revelations, and its public version is heavily redacted.
The Brereton report provides evidence of 39 murders committed by Australian Special Forces in Afghanistan. It says, the victims were not terrorists, but civilians and allegedly members of radical groups, who at the time of their death did not pose a threat to the military. At the time the Australian contingent was far from the front line and did not participate in active hostilities. During the entire operation in Afghanistan, 41 Australian soldiers were killed.
Australian Special Forces (Special Air Service Regiment, SASR) were deployed in Afghanistan in 2001. The country’s official mission in Afghanistan has been to support the Afghan Government in its fight against international terrorism.
The incident happened at the beginning of the war against the radical Taliban movement and terrorist groups associated with it. The Australians, for example, participated in the seizure of Kandahar airport in December 2001, along with units of the US Army.
The Brereton Commission revealed that from 2009 to 2016, 25 SASR soldiers participated in 23 episodes considered war crimes. The first massacres took place in 2009, just as the Taliban stepped up their activities and the war zone in Afghanistan expanded. And the largest number of murders occurred in 2012-2013, on the eve of the withdrawal.
The report suggests the soldiers who committed the killings could suffer psychological stress because the units sent to Afghanistan did not rotate often. The soldiers hid what they’d done or justified the killings by saying they were returning fire.
The special forces who participated in the killings were among the best fighters.
Among the accusations are that Australian Special Forces serving in Afghanistan cultivated an inhumane culture of obliging young soldiers to pass a so-called "blooding". The inquiry says it found credible evidence soldiers were required to shoot a prisoner as part of an initiation. The report also describes the so-called "throwdown" — the weapons which officers placed on dead bodies to form part of a cover story for the killing. It was “created for the purposes of operational reporting and to deflect scrutiny. This was reinforced with a code of silence,” the report says.
The report also cites the findings from the 2016 report by sociologist Dr Samantha Crompvoets, which has prompted Bereton’s four-year investigation. In one of the incidents described, members of the SASR were driving along a road and saw two 14-year-old boys whom they decided might be Taliban sympathisers.
However, the incident described in Dr Crompvoets’ report was condemned as "unproven rumours" by Australian Liberal MP Andrew Hastie. A former SARS soldier, he has lashed out at the Australian Defence Forces for publicly releasing the allegations.
Human Rights Justice or Trade Disputes?
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian has condemned the war crimes in a tweet. His Twitter post featured an illustration by Chinese artist Wuheqilin depicting an Australian soldier holding a knife to the throat of an Afghan child.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison called the image "repugnant" and demanded an apology from China. The Chinese Foreign Ministry has refused to apologise.
Apperently fearing Australia would lose popularity among the Chinese, Prime Minister Scott Morrison made a rare appeal directly to Chinese Australians via the popular China-owned messenger WeChat.
However, according to Australian media, Morrison’s message was removed for violating WeChat guidelines as it was "inciting, misleading" and "distort historical events, and confuse the public." Twitter, on the contrary, didn’t remove the Chinese image and only labelled it as a ‘sensitive content’.
The US State Department has backed Australia, with deputy spokesperson Cale Brown accusing China of "coercive diplomacy".
The latest diplomatic spat between Australia and China comes, in fact, after years of trade and foreign policy disputes. Canberra has banned China tech giant Huawei’s 5G rollout and called for an inquiry into links between COVID-19 and a Wuhan lab
China receives nearly half of Australian exports has released a list of its grievances against Australia on a wide range of investment policy, security and human rights issues. China also wants Canberra to adjust its actions if it wants to re-establish relations with its largest trading partner.
Last month, China effectively banned the import of Australian wine, imposing a duty of 212.1%.