Japan has accused China of unilaterally pushing its territorial claims in the region and of spreading disinformation and propaganda in the Covid-19 fight.
Tokyo vowed to "strengthen its defence capability at speeds that are fundamentally different from the past" in its annual defence review, issued yesterday, which also discussed perennial security threats, such as North Korea and emergent risks in cyber and space warfare.The harshest language in the 597-page report was reserved for China, which the report said had "relentlessly continued unilateral attempts to change the status quo by coercion" over a disputed group of islets in the East China Sea that Japan calls the Senkakus. China calls them the Diaoyus.
It also accused Beijing of "moving forward with militarisation, as well as expanding and intensifying its activities in the maritime and aerial domains" of the South China Sea to "create a fait accompli".
The pointed criticism followed similar rhetoric in Washington on Monday. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described Chinese behaviour in the South China Sea as a "campaign of bullying" to assert influence in a waterway where US$3 trillion (S$4.2 trillion) of global trade passes through each year.
Meanwhile, at a regular press briefing in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian hit back at Japan's report, saying it was "full of prejudice and false information against China".
"It strives to incite and disinform against China, painting China as a threat," Mr Zhao said, adding that Beijing has launched stern representations to Tokyo.
"As a responsible major country, China is committed to peaceful development and regional diplomacy in that we treat our neighbours with kindness and as partners. We pursue a defence policy that is defensive in nature. We are a builder and contributor to world peace, stability, and prosperity," he said.
Among Japan's key defence projects in the fiscal year ending next March is the construction of two destroyers, a submarine and a mine-sweeping vessel, as well as the purchase of three patrol aircraft and seven patrol helicopters.
These projects are among planned spending that will push the defence budget up by 1.2 per cent to 5.07 trillion yen (S$65.8 billion), though this is still a quarter that of China's, which Tokyo asserts has been "sustained without transparency over more than 30 years".
Japan's White Paper also pointed the finger at China for trying to spread propaganda and disinformation amid growing uncertainty and confusion as it provides aid to nations fighting Covid-19.
A Japanese Defence Ministry official, speaking to reporters, cited claims including that the coronavirus was brought to China by the US and that Chinese herbal remedies were effective against it.
"The Covid-19 pandemic may expose and intensify strategic competition among countries intending to create international and regional orders more preferable to themselves and to expand their influence," the report said. "We need to closely watch such moves with great concern as security issues."
Reacting to the report, Kobe University security expert Tosh Minohara told The Straits Times that the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, comprising the US, Japan, Australia and India, has to be more coordinated as Beijing and Moscow grow closer. He said: "Japan should be pushing for a more robust Quad, with clearly defined aims, as well as a free and open Indo-Pacific strategy, where the 'strategy' is emphasised - rather than it being just a mere 'vision'."