The joint press conference between Minister Bishop and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, although relatively cordial, clearly masked what appeared to be some seething Chinese resentment at Bishop’s comments in Tokyo and Australia’s position on The Philippines’ legal case against China’s territorial claims in the International Court of Justice. The growing security relationship between Japan and Australia has not been commented on in public in great detail by China, but when asked by an ABC journalist (well done Bill Birtles!) about the possibility of Australia acquiring Japanese submarines, Minister Wang decided to give all present a reminder of Japan’s imperial past and how the people of Asia had not ‘forgotten’ what Japan did more than 70 years ago.
Minister Bishop was not prepared to be goaded into commentary against Japan nor to be put in the position of having to suddenly declare Australia’s affinity for China, so she reiterated comments she made earlier in the Japan Press Club on Tuesday – essentially, “Australia seeks to be the friend of everyone”. It was a deft move, and one that won her admirers from among the Australian journalists assembled. Later, Bishop would state that for Australia, what occurred in the region over 70 years ago was in the past, and that Australia had ‘moved on’ in its relationship with both Germany and Japan.
The implications of Minister Wang’s comments were clear, however. In a ham fisted way, Wang had declared China’s opposition to Australia acquiring any military technology from Japan, or even having a security relationship with Japan. While dismissing any concerns about such a relationship with his line about China’s rise being inevitable no matter if Australia obtains submarines from Japan, this comment in itself revealed much about what the Communist Party fears about the potential defence relationship between Japan and Australia. Japan has the technical ability to challenge Chinese primacy in weaponry and asymmetric forms of warfare, and if it starts selling this technology abroad it will up the stakes for China in its push for domination of the security environment in the Western Pacific.
The thing is, the Communist Party of China is using megaphone diplomacy against Japan in an area where subtlety would be more effective. By seeking to draw comparisons between Japan’s shift in its security position, which itself is a consequence of China’s shift in its emphasis on military power, and Japan as it existed more than half a century ago, Minister Wang really only demonstrated just how distorted the CCP`s version of history is and how jarring it is to hear this outside of China. Moreover, it is a self-defeating practice. By trying to intimidate Australia, China has given Australia a reason to adopt Japanese submarines so as not to be seen as caving in to Chinese pressure.
If China`s response to Australia`s actions is to try to humiliate our foreign minister whenever Ministers Wang and Bishop meet, there are going to be far fewer meetings between these two and a lot more animosity. It strengthens the argument that Australia would be far better off as part of a quadrilateral alliance relationship with India, the US, and Japan, and that it is pointless to try to forge closer ties with the CCP under Xi Jinping.