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South China Sea

Japan accuses China of pushing territory claims during pandemic

Criticism echoes US complaints about Beijing's moves in South China Sea

This Chinese occupied reef in the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea has incurred the wrath of Japan and the U.S.   © Reuters

TOKYO (Reuters) -- Japan's annual defence review accuses China of pushing its territorial claims amid the coronavirus pandemic and suspects Beijing of spreading propaganda and disinformation as it provides medical aid to nations fighting COVID-19.

China "is continuing to attempt to alter the status quo in the East China Sea and the South China Sea," Japan said in the defence white paper approved by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's government on Tuesday.

The white paper described "relentless" intrusions in waters around a group of islets claimed by both nations in the East China Sea, known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.

In the South China Sea, it said Beijing was asserting territorial claims by establishing administrative districts around disputed islands, that forced countries distracted by the coronavirus outbreak to respond.

Japan's criticism of China echoes similar comments made by the United States, and comes as tension in the region increases as Beijing and Washington conduct separate military drills in the resource-rich South China Sea and as relations between the world's two largest economies deteriorated.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Monday rejected China's disputed claims to offshore resources in most of the South China Sea, saying they were "completely unlawful".

Beijing insists its intentions in the waterway, through which around $3 trillion of global trade passes each year, are peaceful.

Japan sees China as a longer-term and more serious threat than nuclear-armed North Korea. Beijing now spends four times as much as Tokyo on defence as it builds a large modern military.

Japan's defence review also claimed China appeared to be responsible for "propaganda" and "disinformation" amid "social uncertainties and confusion" caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

Such disinformation included online claims that the coronavirus was brought to China by a U.S. military member, or that Chinese herbal remedies could treat COVID-19, a defence ministry official said at a briefing.

Other threats faced by Japan include North Korea's ongoing development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles as well as a resurgence of military activity by Russia in the skies and waters in Japan, at times in joint drills with China, the defence review said.

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