BEIJING - China said on Thursday any decision to set up new air defense identification zones would depend on the level of threat it faced in the air, following speculation it wants one for the disputed South China Sea.
China alarmed Japan, South Korea and the United States last year when it announced an air defense identification zone for the East China Sea, covering a group of uninhabited islands at the centre of a bitter ownership spat between China and Japan.
Concern has grown since in Washington and Asian capitals that Beijing plans one for the South China Sea, where China is engaged in territorial disputes with Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei.
Asked if China did plan such a zone for the South China Sea, Defence Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun told a monthly news conference that China, as a sovereign nation, had every right to set them up.
"But whether or not to set up an air defense identification zone depends on the level of threat faced to security in the air, and all sorts of factors have to be considered," Yang said, in comments on the ministry's website.
"What needs stressing is that China has confidence that the general situation in the South China Sea and China's relations with countries surrounding it are stable."
China, which is swiftly ramping up military spending, has regularly dispatched patrols to the East China Sea since it established the defence zone.
The United States, Europe and Japan have criticised China's air defense zone, saying its establishment last November was provocative and exacerbates tensions between Beijing and Tokyo.
Yang blamed "right-wing Japanese forces" for cooking up stories that China had such plans for the South China Sea.
"Their aim is to distract international attention, and they have hidden intentions," he added.
Deteriorating Sino-Japan relations have been fuelled by the row over the chain of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. Ships from both countries frequently shadow each other around the islets, raising fears of a clash.
Ties have worsened since China's creation of the air defense identification zone over the East China Sea and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's December visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine honouring war criminals among Japan's war dead.