China yesterday explicitly urged Australia not to purchase a new fleet of submarines worth about A$50 billion (S$50 billion) from Japan, saying Canberra should remember World War II and consider "the feelings of Asian countries".
The public intervention by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi into Australia's maritime security plans came as the United States has reportedly favoured Canberra buying the fleet of up to 12 submarines from Japan. The other main contenders are Germany and France.
Speaking to reporters during a visit to Beijing by Australia's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop, Mr Wang said Canberra should not encourage any moves by Tokyo to reinterpret its pacifist Constitution.
"We hope that in military cooperation with Japan, Australia will take into full account this historical context and take into consideration also the feelings of Asian countries because of that history," Mr Wang said. "We hope that Australia will take concrete actions to support the peaceful development of Japan and Japan's efforts to uphold its pacifist Constitution and not the opposite."
In response, Ms Bishop said Australia was conducting a "comprehensive evaluation process" driven by technological and capability requirements.
The highly anticipated submarine deal - set to be one of the world's biggest defence contracts - has increasingly embroiled Canberra in a regional contest for influence.
A final decision is expected later this year when the federal Government releases its long-term defence blueprint.
Japan and France are believed to be the front runners, but Tokyo is favoured by some because it would have strategic benefits, including bolstering defence ties between Australia and Japan.
During a visit to Tokyo this week, Ms Bishop said: "We want to ensure that our new submarine fleet is able to provide the most high-quality, capable fleet that we're able to purchase."
Mr Andrew Shearer, a national security adviser to former Australian prime minister Tony Abbott, said in an article co-written with Dr Michael Green, from the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, that Washington had "been careful not to take sides" in the decision.
But they suggested US officials would prefer that Australia opted for Japan's bid, which involves a version of its 4,000-ton Soryu-class submarines.
"Senior US officials and military officers are in no doubt both as to the superior capability of the Japanese Soryu class and to the long-term strategic benefits to the United States and the region of an interoperable fleet of Australian and Japanese conventional submarines equipped with US combat systems," they wrote in The National Interest last month. "Particularly in an increasingly contested maritime environment in which undersea warfare will be critical."
Australia and China have expanded military exchanges and cooperation in recent years, but Canberra has also criticised Beijing's territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea.
Asked whether the US wanted Australia to choose Japan, Ms Bishop said earlier this week: "The US has said publicly that it recognises Australia's sovereign right to determine the outcome of the competitive evaluation process."
Mr Wang was asked yesterday whether he saw any move by Australia to shore up military ties with Japan as an effort to contain China's rise.
"I actually don't think any country or force in the world can stop that rise," he responded.