TOKYO (Reuters) - Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, in an interview published on Saturday, said Japan was ready to be more assertive in guarding against what he said might be an attempt by China to use force to attain its diplomatic goals.
But a top retired Chinese diplomat said any move by Tokyo to contain China could amount to an attempt to conceal ulterior motives in the region and prove to be "extremely dangerous".
Mr Abe, interviewed by The Wall Street Journal, said he had realised during recent meetings with South East Asian leaders that the region was looking for leadership from Tokyo in terms of security amid China's more forthright diplomacy.
"There are concerns that China is attempting to change the status quo by force, rather than by rule of law. But if China opts to take that path, then it won't be able to emerge peacefully," he told the newspaper.
"So it shouldn't take that path and many nations expect Japan to strongly express that view. And they hope that as a result, China will take responsible action in the international community."
Relations between Japan and China have deteriorated sharply in the past year, with the main sticking point being conflicting claims to uninhabited islets in the East China Sea, known in Japanese as the Senkaku Islands and in China as Diaoyu.
Ties have taken a further battering over visits by Japanese lawmakers this month to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo honouring both war dead and Japanese leaders convicted as war criminals.
China is also at odds with several South East Asian countries, which contest its claims to wide swathes of the South China Sea.
Former Chinese foreign minister Tang Jiaxuan, addressing a forum in Beijing, said that Japan hoped to enlist the United Nations and the international community to curb China's actions in the region, according to media reports.
Mr Tang made no reference to Mr Abe's latest comments, but said any attempt to contain China either amounted to a distorted view of China or "the rendering of an image of the 'Chinese menace' to achieve an ulterior political goal".
"I hope it's the former, because if it's the latter, not only is it futile, it is also extremely dangerous."
Chinese President Xi Jinping adopted a more conciliatory tone at a conference on diplomacy this week, saying good relations with neighbours were crucial to a stable foreign policy.
Mr Abe took office last year for a rare second term and is seen as a hawkish nationalist with a conservative agenda that includes revising a post-war pacifist Constitution drafted by the United States, strengthening Japan's defence posture and recasting wartime history with a less apologetic tone.
He is likely to visit the Yasukuni shrine by the end of the year, a move certain to outrage China, which sees the site as glorifying war criminals.