Adelaide: Japan`s torpedoing of an Australian hospital ship in World War II was illegal and violated fundamental humanitarian principles, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd said on Thursday.
But while condemning the 1943 sinking of the Centaur with the loss of 268 lives, Rudd stressed the Japan of today was "vastly different" and that Australia must deepen ties with its key Asian trading partner.
"The action to sink the Centaur by the Japanese navy at the time was, in our view, a complete breach of international law," Rudd told reporters in the southern city of Adelaide.
"Let`s be clear-cut about it: the decision to sink an unarmed hospital ship clearly marked with Red Cross symbols, as it was, was a violation of international law and was a complete violation of the most humanitarian principals."
But the Prime Minister said the actions of the Japanese vessel "were the actions of the war" and that the matter had been "put to rest" by the Australia government in the 1950s.
"The Japan of today is a vastly different Japan and I think it`s important also that we continue to build our future relationship with Japan," Rudd said.
The clearly-marked Centaur was sunk on May 14, 1943 and only found off Australia`s northeast coast last month when a high-tech search uncovered it at a depth of 2,059 metres (1.3 miles).
The Japanese embassy in Canberra issued a statement when the wreck was found which said the circumstances in which the Centaur went down were not conclusive.
Rudd denied a newspaper report that the Australian Defence Department had warned him to remain silent about the sinking because of fears that any comments could damage Canberra`s relations with Japan.
Defence Minister John Faulkner said a Defence Department briefing paper on the Centaur had been prepared in 2008 but that its aim was not to gag Rudd.
"That brief wasn`t, of course, about silencing the Prime Minister," Faulkner said. "That is not the case at all," he said adding that it was about making contact with Japan over plans to find the hospital ship.
"In particular, there was a hope that there might be some involvement of the Japanese government in terms of assisting with archival research," he said.