BEIJING (AP) -- China on Wednesday dismissed criticism of racially tinged comments by its top diplomat, who said Westerners are incapable of distinguishing among Chinese, Koreans and Japanese.
"Americans take all visitors from China, South Korea and Japan as Asians. They cannot tell the differences and it's the same in Europe," said Wang Yi, a former foreign minister who now heads the ruling Communist Party's foreign affairs commission. "No matter how yellow you dye your hair, or how sharp you make your nose, you'll never turn into a European or American, you'll never turn into a Westerner."
"One needs to know where one's roots are," Wang said at a trilateral forum in the northern Chinese city of Qingdao on Monday. "China, Japan, Korea -- if we can join hands and cooperate, it would not only suit the interests of our three countries, but also the wishes of our peoples and together we can prosper, revitalize East Asia and enrich the world."
Wang's comments drew immediate condemnation, particularly from scholars online. Asked about the critical response at a briefing Wednesday, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin replied, "we cannot agree with it at all."
In a speech to the forum, Wang Yi emphasized cooperation among the three nations, adding that "some major countries outside the region deliberately exaggerate ideological differences, weave various exclusive small circles, and try to replace cooperation with confrontation and unity with division."
That was a clear reference to the United States, China's chief rival, which it routinely accuses of hegemonism.
The U.S. has security alliances with both Japan and South Korea, whose open societies and multiparty democracies contrast sharply with China's strict authoritarian one-party system. China's closest allies in northeast Asian are North Korea and Russia.
"Only a region that is united and self-reliant can eliminate external interference and achieve sustainable development," added Wang, who then promoted a series of Chinese initiatives, including Communist Party leader Xi Jinping's signature "Belt and Road" cross-border infrastructure project.
China has for centuries viewed itself as the economic, political and cultural center of East Asia, a role it is seeking to regain under Xi's aggressive foreign policy and campaign for the "Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation."
On Twitter, Bonnie Glaser, Asia Director of the George Marshall Fund of the United States, wrote: "This message will not land well with Japan and South Korea. Does Wang Yi really think that national interests are less important than appearance?"
"The irony of ... Wang Yi telling Japanese and Koreans 'you can never become an American,' is that Japanese and Koreans become Americans every day," wrote Jeff M. Smith, director of the Asian Studies Center at U.S. think tank The Heritage Foundation.
"They're part of the fabric of America. What they can't become is Chinese. Tone deaf. Again," Smith wrote.
There are millions of U.S. citizens of Chinese, Japanese and Korean heritage.
Some commentators also noted that Wang's comments were reminiscent of Japan's 20th century "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere," essentially a front for its bid to conquer much of the continent and supplant Western influence.
In his speech and in later comments, Wang papered over historical and current differences among the three countries. China fought against South Korea on behalf of North Korea during the 1950-53 Korean War, and still bears strong resentment toward Japan over its brutal World War II invasion and occupation of much of China.