China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei asks journalists for questions during a news conference in Beijing
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei asks journalists for questions during a news conference in BeijingReuters

China on Saturday staunchly rejected Japan's renewed call to withdraw the declaration of a new air defense zone, calling it "slanderous".

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei expressed his "anger" over Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's recent comments on China's East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone. Hong said that the Japanese leader's "malicious slander" against China in the international arena was not justifiable, China's state-run Xinhua news agency has reported.

The comment came hours after Prime Minster Abe said at a Japan ASEAN summit in Tokyo on Saturday that he was "deeply concerned" by China's "unilateral" decision to establish the air zone and he believed "many" leaders of South Asian countries attending the meeting would agree with him.

"We express strong dissatisfaction with the Japanese leader's use of an international meeting to make slanderous remarks about China," Hong Lei said on Saturday.

He said that Japan's "attempt to promote a double standard and mislead international public opinion is doomed to fail" adding that the country which has in fact "unilaterally changed the status quo over the Diaoyu islands is none other than Japan".

"In this regard, China has taken lawful and necessary measures to safeguard its sovereign territory and is fully justified and blameless," the spokesman added.

In a move that ratcheted up an already tensed diplomatic row, China last month declared an air defense identification zone over an area of the East China Sea which overlaps the disputed islands controlled by Tokyo, which Japan calls the Senkakus. The announcement met with a series of sharp criticism from the international community, many of whom said that China cannot make decisions "unilaterally".

The Japan-ASEAN summit that took place on Saturday was the first major gathering by Asian countries after China alleged ownership of the disputed area.

Meanwhile, South Korea countered China's unilateral decision to expand its air defense zone by announcing a new expanded air defense zone of their own overlapping the defense zone of Beijing last week.

At the heart of the dispute are eight islands and rocks in the East China Sea, a total area of about 7 sq km. They lie north-east of Taiwan, east of the Chinese mainland and south-west of Japan's southern-most part, Okinawa. The islands were controlled by Japan until China's claim over it which triggered the dispute between the two countries.