CHINA has warned Japan not to "spread rumours" that it plans to create a new air defence zone in the disputed South China Sea, while insisting it feels no security threat from South-east Asian countries and sees "bright" prospects for ties in the region.
The Chinese foreign ministry blamed right-wing forces in Japan for releasing such allegations to stir up trouble between China and its South-east Asian neighbours last Saturday, while a top official described China-Japan relations as "probably at its worst".
Beijing would "respond effectively to any provocation" that risked disrupting order in East Asia, said Ms Fu Ying, who chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee of China's National People's Congress, in a panel discussion at the Munich Security Conference.
An escalating conflict between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea has undermined stability in the region.
Beijing spooked its North Asian neighbours as well as the United States late last year when it announced an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea.
Last Friday, a report by Japan's Asahi Shimbun daily that Chinese air force officials have drafted proposals to create another ADIZ, this time in the South China Sea, caused alarm to ripple across South-east Asia.
The next day, the US State Department warned Beijing not to make such a move, even as it stressed that such rumours were unconfirmed.
Setting up this zone would be perceived as "a provocative and unilateral act that would raise tensions and call into serious question China's commitment to diplomatically managing territorial disputes", the US stated.
In response, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei insisted China had the right to adopt all measures, including setting up ADIZs, to ensure national security.
But he also implied that there was no need for a zone in the South China waters where China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines and Taiwan all have competing territorial claims.
"Generally speaking, China does not feel there is an air security threat from Association of South-east Asian Nations (Asean) countries," Mr Hong said in a statement carried by state news agency Xinhua.
"China feels optimistic about relations with countries surrounding the South China Sea and the general situation in the South China Sea," he added, noting that prospects for relations with Asean were "bright".
He accused Japanese right-wing forces of raising such rumours in a ploy to distract international attention away from their own "plot" to alter Japan's pacifist Constitution.
"We sternly warned these forces not to mislead public opinions with rumours and play up tensions for their own selfish benefit," Mr Hong stated.
Chinese analysts say that it is unlikely that Beijing will set up an ADIZ in the South China Sea in the near future, as it does not want to stoke tensions on two fronts at once.
But that does not mean Beijing does not intend to do so, according to Beijing-based maritime territory researcher Wang Xiaopeng.
The "right time and opportunity will come" after China finishes the construction of Sansha City on one of the Paracel Islands, from which it is setting up a regular patrol system in the South China Sea, he observed.
Meanwhile, in a fresh sign of Beijing's aggressiveness in asserting its claims over Tokyo-controlled islands known as Senkaku to the Japanese and Diaoyu to the Chinese, three Chinese coastguard ships sailed through the disputed waters yesterday.
These vessels were "continuing their patrol" of the islands, Xinhua cited the State Oceanic Administration as saying.