Australia on Friday openly mocked a senior Chinese diplomat's warnings about its plan to acquire nuclear-powered submarines, saying they were "so silly it's funny".
The Chinese embassy's charge d'affaires, Wang Xining, said Australia would become the "naughty guy" if it procures the submarines, which are capable of stealthy, long-duration missions.
Nuclear-powered submarines are designed to launch long-range attacks, Wang argued in an interview with The Guardian.
"So who are you going to attack? You are no longer a peace lover, a peace defender, you become a sabre wielder in certain form," said Wang, who is China's top representative in Australia since the previous ambassador's departure last month after a five-year term.
Wang said Australia had "zero nuclear capacity" to deal with any trouble affecting the submarines and asked if politicians were ready to apologise to people if any incident occurred.
Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton derided the "inflammatory" remarks, describing them in a television interview as "provocative, sort of comical statements, really that are so silly it's funny."
Dutton said the acting Chinese ambassador "is probably reading off a script from the Communist Party but I think most Australians see through the non-productive nature of the comments".
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced in September that he had decided to obtain the nuclear-powered vessels in a new defence alliance with the United States and Britain.
Besides angering China, the deal infuriated France, which discovered at the last moment that its own multi-billion-dollar diesel-electric submarine contract with Australia had been scrapped.
In his interview with The Guardian, Wang also cautioned Australian politicians not to do anything "destructive to the relationship".
Dutton had said at the weekend that he could not conceive of a situation in which Australia would not support the United States in the event of armed conflict with China over control of Taiwan.
A self-ruled democracy of 23 million people, Taiwan is claimed by Beijing, which has vowed to one day take the island, by force if needed.
Icy relations between Australia and China have led to a freeze in high-level diplomatic contacts for almost two years.
China has imposed stiff sanctions on some Australian exports, a measure seen in Canberra as retaliation for Australia banning telecom tech titan Huawei from key contracts and for questioning how the Covid-19 pandemic began.
There is no sign of either side ceding ground.
Morrison this week unveiled a list of 63 "critical technologies" such as 5G communications to be protected from interference by foreign actors including China.
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