BEIJING/MELBOURNE (Reuters) - China denounced as slander on Thursday criticism of its ambassador to the Pacific nation of Kiribati over a picture of him walking on the backs of prostrate islanders that a top U.S. diplomat derided as unacceptable behaviour.
China's ambassador, Tang Songgen, was taking part in a traditional welcome ceremony "at the cordial request of the local government and people, and out of respect for the culture and traditions of Kiribati", Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian told a daily briefing in Beijing.
Some people have tried to slander China over this incident, but their attempts to damage China's relationship with island nations will not succeed, Zhao said.
The grainy photograph that appeared on social media showed a man in a white shirt and grey trousers stepping on the backs of about 30 people lined up on the ground.
Tang said on social media he had made a trip to Kiribati's outer islands this month, after taking up his post when China resumed diplomatic relations late last year.
The photograph stirred controversy in the Pacific where China has been trying to expand its influence to the consternation of the United States and its old ally, Australia.
Kiribati's foreign ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The U.S. defence attaché in neighbouring Fiji took the opportunity to questioned Tang's behaviour.
"I simply cannot imagine any scenario in which walking on the backs of children is acceptable behaviour by an ambassador of any country (or any adult for that matter!)," the diplomat, Commander Constantine Panayiotou, said on Twitter.
"Yet here we are thanks to China's ambassador to Kiribati."
In Taiwan, which lost Kiribati as a diplomatic ally to China last year, the foreign ministry said they were as shocked as everyone else at the picture.
"This is not the Kiribati we know, and we didn't know Kiribati had this kind of welcoming ceremony. Taiwan would not treat our allies and their people like this," said spokeswoman Joanne Ou.
China's nationalistic Global Times said the "misrepresentation" of the picture was aimed at damaging China's image.
Katerina Teaiwa, associate professor at Australian National University, said the picture reflected a traditional welcoming ceremony.
"Everyone should be less hysterical about this & more respectful towards the diversity of Pacific ways, islanders should have cultural self-determination," Teaiwa said on Twitter.
(Reporting by Melanie Burton in Melbourne, Jonathan Barrett in Sydney, Gabriel Crossley in Beijing, Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Editing by Robert Birsel)