By Tim Kelly
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 battling the disease.
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 virus outbreak to respond.
Japan's criticism of China echoes comments by the United States at a time of rising regional tension as Beijing and Washtington held separate military drills in the resource-rich South China Sea and ties between the world's two biggest 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 annually, are peaceful.
In Beijing, foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said China had lodged a complaint over the review.
"Japan's defence white paper is full of biases and false information," he told a daily briefing. "It is trying to do all it can to hype up the so-called China threat."
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 said China appeared to be responsible for "propaganda" and "disinformation" amid "social uncertainties and confusion" caused by the virus outbreak.
Such disinformation included online claims that the virus was brought to China by a U.S. military member, or that Chinese herbal remedies could treat the disease, a defence ministry official said at a briefing.
Other threats facing Japan include North Korea's development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, and a resurgence of military activity by Russia in the skies and waters around Japan, at times in joint drills with China, the review added.
For an interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus, click: https://tmsnrt.rs/3aIRuz7
(Reporting by Tim Kelly; Additinonal reporting by Yew Lun Tian; Editing by Michael Perry and Clarence Fernandez)