The United States on Thursday expressed disappointment with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's decision to visit a controversial shrine which honors the country's military dead -- including many considered war criminals.

“Japan is a valued ally and friend. Nevertheless, the United States is disappointed that Japan's leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tensions with Japan's neighbors,” said a statement posted on the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo's website.

“The United States hopes that both Japan and its neighbors will find constructive ways to deal with sensitive issues from the past, to improve their relations, and to promote cooperation in advancing our shared goals of regional peace and stability,” the statement added. “We take note of the Prime Minister’s expression of remorse for the past and his reaffirmation of Japan's commitment to peace.”

Abe's surprise visit -- his first as prime minister -- to the Yasukuni war shrine is likely to worsen relations with Japan's Asian neighbors and comes amid growing tensions between Beijing and Tokyo over a number of disputed islands in the China Seas.

China in December declared an air exclusion zone over islands that are also claimed by Tokyo.

Vice President Joe Biden, during a visit to Asia, criticized China's move and encouraged both countries to calm tensions and seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict. Biden told China's leaders that the U.S. was “deeply concerned” about the air defense zone and the White House said it did not accept the “legitimacy” of the move.

Japanese prime ministers have regularly visited the Yasukuni shrine, which honors over 2 million dead military service members, including some who were convicted of war crimes after World War II. The visits are seen as an affront in other Asian countries which were invaded by Japan during the war.

China was quick to criticize the move, with a foreign ministry spokesman saying it would create "major new political obstacles for already strained Sino-Japanese relations," according to a report from the AP.

Abe defended the visit, saying "it is not my intention to hurt the feelings of the Chinese and Korean people." Abe added that Japan should never again wage war and expressed "severe remorse for the past," according to reports.

President Obama has sought to “pivot” to Asia in his foreign policy, arguing that the U.S. must broaden trade and defense links with the Pacific rim over the next century. But the Arab Spring, continuing turmoil in Iraq and Syria, and Iran's nuclear pursuits have distracted the administration from East Asia, critics say.

Obama was also forced to cancel plans for a visit to a summit of Asian leaders in October after lawmakers were unable to agree on a spending bill, leading to a two-week government shutdown.