(ATTN: ADDS Chinese foreign minister summons Japanese ambassador in para 4; AMENDS headline)
BEIJING, Dec. 26 (Yonhap) -- China expressed "strong indignation" on Thursday over Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's surprise visit to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine, warning that Japan "must bear the responsibility for all the consequences arising therefrom."
Japan's bilateral relations with both South Korea and China are expected to hit their lowest ebbs in years after Abe paid his respects at the shrine, which honors 14 Class A war criminals convicted by the allied forces after World War II.
Visits by Japanese leaders to the shrine have drawn rebukes from South Korea and China, where memories of Japan's wartime atrocities are still vivid, but Abe has become the first incumbent Japanese prime minister to visit the shrine in seven years.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi summoned the Japanese ambassador in Beijing, Masato Kitera, and lodged "strong opposition" against Abe's visit to the shrine, official media reported.
South Korea expressed anger at Abe's "anachronistic" visit to the shrine. In Tokyo, the U.S. embassy voiced disappointment at Abe, saying "Japan's leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan's neighbors."
For both Koreans and Chinese, the shrine is a reminder of Japan's brutal occupation during World War II.
"The Chinese government expresses its strong indignation over the behavior of the Japanese leader which grossly tramples on the sentiment of the Chinese people and other Asian peoples victimized in the war," China's foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in a statement, shortly after Abe's visit to the shrine in Tokyo.
China lodged "a strong protest and severe condemnation against the Japanese side," Qin said, accusing Tokyo of "openly challenging historical justice and human conscience."
"The perverse act of the Japanese leader cannot but give rise to high vigilance and strong concerns of Japan's close Asian neighbors and the international community over where Japan is headed," Qin said.
The visit by Abe to the shrine came as bilateral relations between Japan and China remain icy over a set of islands in the East China Sea that are claimed by both sides.
Relations between South Korea and Japan have also been strained over Tokyo's repeated claims to Seoul's easternmost islets of Dokdo and unrepentant attitude toward the sexual slavery issue.
After visiting the shrine, Abe told reporters in Tokyo that his visit was not aimed at hurting the sentiments of the Korean and Chinese people.
Asked about the remarks by Abe, Qin said at a daily briefing that, "If Shinzo Abe really wants to improve relations with his Asian neighbors, he should show respect for his Asian neighbors, and he should go to the Memorial Hall for Nanjing Massacre rather than the Yasukuni shrine."
Qin was referring to the mass murders and rapes committed by Japan's Imperial Army when it invaded Nanjing in 1937.
"Shinzo Abe's visit to the Yasukuni shrine damaged the political foundation of bilateral relations and it also erected a new barrier to the improvement of the bilateral relationship," Qin told reporters.
In a commentary on Thursday, China's official Xinhua news agency described Abe's visit to the shrine as a "grave provocation that may lead to heightened tension in the region."
"Choosing a sensitive time to visit a highly controversial and notorious place, Abe knows perfectly what he is doing and the consequences," Xinhua said.
"Instead of a pledge against war, as Abe has claimed, the visit is a calculated provocation to stoke further tension," it said.