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China sharply criticised Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Friday for telling a US newspaper that Beijing had a "deeply ingrained" need to challenge its neighbours over territory.
Abe, visiting the United States for talks with President Barack Obama, told the Washington Post in an interview published Thursday that China uses disputes with Japan and others to shore up its domestic support.
Tensions between the Asian giants are growing over rival claims to a group of small islands in the East China Sea that the Chinese call the Diaoyus and the Japanese refer to as the Senkakus.
Beijing is also at odds with several Southeast Asian countries, including the Philippines, over islands in the South China Sea.
China's confrontational stance risked eventually harming its economy and scaring off foreign investors, Abe said.
"Such behaviour is going to have an effect on their economic activity at the end of the day," the paper quoted him as saying.
"In the case of China, teaching patriotism (is equivalent to) teaching anti-Japanese sentiment," he added.
Beijing fired back, with foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei saying outsiders have no right to criticise how China works.
"Only Chinese people have the right to speak about whether China's political system and development strategy is suitable," he told a regular briefing Friday.
"The great renaissance of the Chinese people cannot be obstructed by anyone," he added, saying that Beijing had demanded a clarification.
Hong was earlier quoted by the state-run Global Times newspaper as saying Chinese officials were "shocked" at Abe's comments.
"It's rare that a country's leader would brazenly distort facts, attack its neighbour and instigate confrontation among countries in the region," Hong said, according to the paper.
The maritime dispute over the uninhabited East China Sea islands, which are administered by Japan but claimed by China and Taiwan, has simmered for decades.
Tensions escalated last year after Tokyo nationalised those islets in the chain it did not already own.
China responded angrily, with violent street demonstrations damaging Japanese businesses and property, and some Japanese citizens reporting being harassed and physically attacked.
Beijing and Tokyo have both scrambled jets to ward off moves by the other side and fishing boats and government patrol ships have played cat-and-mouse in the vicinity of the islands.
Earlier this month, Tokyo alleged that a Chinese frigate locked its weapons-targeting radar on a Japanese destroyer in what it characterised as a dangerous escalation. Beijing denied the charge.
Abe is due to meet Obama on Friday. Japan and the United States have a security treaty and Washington stations some 47,000 troops in Japan.
Last month Hillary Clinton, approaching the end of her term as secretary of state, said Washington does not take sides in the territorial dispute but pointedly cautioned Beijing not to challenge Japan's control over the islands.
China's official Xinhua news agency in a commentary Friday warned the US that backing Tokyo would risk damaging ties with China, urging Washington against "being hijacked" by Japan.
"US support for Japan on the issue would not only damage Washington's credibility as a constructive superpower, but also as an important partner of China on many pressing global issues", the commentary said.
US backing would only encourage Japan "to take further provocative actions, which will definitely send China-Japan relations to new lows and even threaten the peace and stability in East Asia", Xinhua added.