Outspoken Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso hailed Taiwan as a law-abiding "country," triggering a new protest from Beijing.
Aso told a parliamentary committee that Japan and Taiwan shared democracy and a market economy.
"Its democracy is considerably matured and liberal economics is deeply ingrained, so it is a law-abiding country," Aso said. "In various ways it is a country that shares a sense of values with Japan."
But he said he recognized the official stance of Japan which declared Beijing the only legitimate government of China when it normalized relations in 1972.
"Although I know there will be a problem with calling [Taiwan] a country, firm relations between Japan and Taiwan ... should be maintained" within the 1972 treaty, he said.
The Japanese Foreign Ministry denied Aso was breaking new ground, and said the minister corrected his comments later in the committee session, calling Taiwan "a region."
``There is no change in Japan's position on the Japan-China agreement of 1972 that stated there is one China,'' said Keiji Kamei, of the China division in the Foreign Ministry.
Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang (
"We are quite shocked at the remarks made by the highest official in the Japanese foreign service, which breaches the Sino-Japanese joint declaration," Qin told a regular press briefing.
"We are strongly protesting against this rude intervention in China's internal affairs," he said.
Aso has ruffled Chinese feathers repeatedly in recent months -- most recently by accusing Beijing of using female spies to seduce Japanese diplomats and later blackmail them to obtain classified information.
He also triggered protests from Beijing by calling China a significant threat in Asia, and suggesting that Taiwan's high educational standards were a legacy of Tokyo's 1895-1945 colonial rule.
In addition, on Wednesday Japan's Foreign Ministry denied a report that Aso told US Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that Tokyo would need nuclear weapons against a possible North Korean threat.
Aso made the remarks at a meeting on Dec. 2 last year in Washington, the weekly magazine Shukan Bunshun said in its edition published yesterday.
"India and Pakistan also have them and so does North Korea. If North Korea continues its nuclear development, even Japan would need to arm itself with nuclear weapons," Aso was quoted by the magazine as saying.
"The report is not true," vice foreign minister Katsutoshi Kaneda told reporters yesterday.
Pyongyang claims to have nuclear weapons, though it hasn't performed any known tests. On Wednesday, it shocked Japan and other nations by test-firing two short-range missiles.
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