Chinese ambassador invokes WWII in quarrel with Japanese counterpart, suggests trade bans may lift

China’s ambassador has criticised his Japanese counterpart in Canberra, accusing him of not doing his job properly and suggesting Tokyo may once again launch a military attack on Australia in the future.

Xiao Qian also suggested that improving bilateral ties might see bans lifted on Australian coal exports to China, although he claimed the decision lay with Chinese companies rather than the country’s governing party.

The ambassador made both remarks during a wideranging and largely upbeat press conference in Canberra held to mark the New Year.

He declared relations between China and Australia had reached a period of “stability”, saying the Chinese Year of the Rabbit offered an opportunity to “jump over obstacles” that had emerged in recent times.

But there are still deep doubts in Canberra about China’s trajectory and the limits to the rapprochement in the wake of high-level meetings between Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and President Xi Jinping, as well as Foreign Minister Penny Wong and her then-Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing.

Japan’s ambassador to Australia, Shingo Yamagami, has been critical of Beijing since taking up the post. (Perth USAsia Centre: Kelly Pilgrim-Byrne)

Japan’s ambassador Shingo Yamagami – who has repeatedly criticised China since taking up the post – in an interview published yesterday in The Australian warned that both Australia and Japan needed to remain “vigilant” as Beijing continued to act aggressively towards other countries in the region, despite taking a softer public tone.

When asked about that comment, Mr Xiao suggested that Mr Yamagami was behaving inappropriately.

“It’s not my role to base myself in Canberra while criticising third countries. It’s not my role … to try and stop Australia developing normal relationship with a third country,” he told journalists.

“So I’m afraid our colleague from Japan is not doing his job.”

Mr Xiao called Japan a “great country” but then made the incendiary suggestion that Tokyo might one day once again pose a military threat to Australia.

“During World War II, Japan invaded Australia, bombed Darwin, killed Australians, and treated Australian POWs in a way that was unacceptable,” he told journalists.

“And the Japanese government has not apologised for that … does that mean they have really realised it’s wrong? If they don’t apologise, they don’t accept it’s wrong, and they might repeat the history.

“When someone threatens you they might threaten you again.”

The comment is likely to be brushed off by the Australian government, which has rapidly grown its defence links with Tokyo in part because of a shared anxiety about China’s growing authoritarianism and swelling military might.

Mr Yamagami also dismissed the attack, telling the ABC he was “baffled and perplexed” by the comments and he did not want to engage in “mutual recriminations”.

“We all know how many years have passed since the end of World War II. We all know the post-war trajectory of peace-loving, rules-abiding Japan,” he said. 

“So what’s at issue here is not what took place more than eight decades ago. What’s at issue here is how to deal with coercion and intimidation throughout the region.

“And here Australia and Japan are in total sync.”

Several Chinese government-backed utilities and a steelmaker have reportedly been given the green light to resume importing Australian coal. (AAP Image: Dave Hunt – file photo)

The restoration of high-level meetings between Australia and China has raised hopes that the two countries may be able to find a way to wind back a series of trade punishments Beijing has imposed on Australia, both through formal sanctions and informal bans on some Australian products.

Most recently, Bloomberg reported that Chinese bureaucrats might  allow some major state-backed utilities and one steelmaker to once again resume importing Australian steel later this year.

During the press conference, Mr Xiao insisted that companies would make their own decisions, but said the improving relationship might give them more confidence to resume imports from Australia.

“I personally believe that when we have a consistent improvement in the relationship that will give people more confidence that they can be rest assured they can continue to do their business relationship,” he said.

“And I personally would encourage such a normal kind of relationship.”

Australian journalist Cheng Lei was detained by Chinese authorities in August 2020. (Supplied)

The ambassador also gave a cryptic response when asked about the fate of detained Australians Cheng Lei and Yang Hengjun.

Mr Xiao suggested that Australian officials and politicians had been advocating relentlessly on their behalf, but China had been “patiently explaining” to Australia that there was a legal process underway.

He then suggested there might be an “announcement” about the cases in the future, although he did not provide any further explanation or context.

“I hope a solution will come as soon as possible but we need to respect the legal procedure,” he said.

Mr Xiao, who has been posted to Canberra for a year, also strongly criticised the AUKUS pact, warning Australia’s push for nuclear-powered submarines was “confrontational” and an “unnecessary consumption” of taxpayers’ money.

“It’s such a complicated project,” he said.

“And if it happens, that’s not going to serve the interests of Australia. Maybe it’s going to serve the interests of other countries.

“If this country really spends money to purchase the nuclear submarines it’s going to be an unnecessary consumption of the Australian taxpayers’ money”.

He also signalled Beijing would continue to frustrate the AUKUS proposal through diplomatic bodies such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, saying the project was “not in accordance with Australia’s policy of nuclear non-proliferation”.

But he declined to criticise Australia’s entry requirements for Chinese travellers as COVID-19 cases surge throughout the country, saying only that he “hoped” those decisions were based on science.

“It’s for the Australian government to make its own decisions,” he said.

“We wish that the response would be based on science, based on facts [and] proportionate.”