Japan's outspoken foreign minister referred to Taiwan as a "law-abiding country" on Thursday and drew a strong protest from Beijing, which considers the island a part of China.

Foreign Minister Taro Aso, who has riled China in recent months with a series of critical comments, told a parliamentary committee that Japan and Taiwan share 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."

Aso later corrected himself in the committee session, calling Taiwan a "region."

Beijing quickly issued a strongly worded protest.

"China strongly protests this crude interference in its internal affairs," Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said, expressing "surprise that a high-ranking Japanese diplomat would make such remarks."

The comment appeared to conflict with Tokyo's long-standing one-China policy, meaning Japan — like the United States and many other nations — does not recognize Taiwan as an independent country.

The Japanese Foreign Ministry, however, denied Aso was breaking new ground.

"There is no change in Japan's position on the Japan-China agreement of 1972 that stated there is one China," said Keiji Kamei, an official with the Foreign Ministry's China division.

Aso has ruffled Chinese feathers repeatedly in recent months, most recently by accusing Beijing of using female spies to seduce Japanese diplomats to later blackmail them for 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 over the island.

Taiwan and China split amid civil war in 1949, and China has repeatedly warned Taiwan against adopting a new constitution, which it views as a step toward declaring formal independence. Beijing still claims sovereignty over the island.