By Mari Yamaguchi

Tokyo (AP): China is pushing harder to make territorial claims in the regional seas and even using the coronavirus pandemic to expand its influence and take strategic superiority, posing a greater threat to Japan and the region, Japan’s government said.

The report highlighting the government’s defence priorities was adopted by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet on Tuesday, less than a day after the Trump administration rejected outright nearly all of Beijing’s significant maritime claims in the South China Sea in a statement likely to deepen the U.S.-China rift.

The Abe government’s Defence White Paper 2020 highlights what are potential Chinese and North Korean threats as Japan tries to further increase its defence capability. Under Abe, Japan has steadily increased its defence budget and capability and purchased costly American arsenals.

Defence Minister Taro Kono recently scrapped the deployment of a pair of costly U.S. land-based missile intercepting systems due to technical issues, and Abe quickly announced his intention to revise Japan’s defence guidelines, possibly allowing Japan to go beyond its conventional defence-only role under the Japan-U.S. security alliance, including discussing a possibility of acquiring a preemptive strike capability.

The White Paper accused China of using propaganda, including spreading disinformation, about the spread of the coronavirus.

“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 their move with serious concern affecting the national security.”

As evidence, a Japanese Defence Ministry official noted that a Chinese Foreign Ministry official had posted on Twitter in March an accusation that the U.S. military had spread the coronavirus in Wuhan and that Chinese media have touted herbal medicine as effective COVID-19 treatments. He spoke on the condition of anonymity, citing department rules.

The annual report said China has “relentlessly” pushed to “change the status quo” in the Asian seas, including sending 3,000-ton class government vessels into Japanese waters around Japan-controlled disputed East China Sea islands called Senkaku in Japanese. Beijing also claim the islands and call them Diaoyu.

China is also pursuing its unilateral attempt in the South China Sea even more aggressively and even expanding its area of activity into more distant seas, a concern shared by the international community, the report said. The South China Sea problem “directly affects peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific region.”

“As China now boasts its capability and makes attempts to unilaterally change the status quo in many places, we must closely grasp what China’s intentions are,” Kono told a news conference Tuesday.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said that Japan’s defence paper is full of prejudice and false information against China, and that it tried its best to hype the so-called “China threat.”

“China has always firmly maintained its sovereignty, security and development interests. All attack or discredit on China are futile,” Zhao said. He urged Japan to stop deliberately intensifying tensions and get along with China.