ABOARD A MILITARY AIRCRAFT — En route to meetings in Japan and China, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he planned to push for a peaceful end to Asia-Pacific territorial disputes, where competing claims over a tiny cluster of islands is ratcheting up tension between the two nations.
Japan and China both claim an island group in the East China Sea — known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese — several of which Japan bought last week from private owners. China responded by sending warships to the area, and anti-Japan demonstrations later broke out in several Chinese cities.
China has territorial disputes simmering off its shores with other Asian nations as well, including Vietnam and the Philippines.
One of Panetta’s missions on his visit this week to China, his first as defense secretary, is to urge its leaders to support free trade and access to international waters. Much of the world’s oil and sea cargo passes through the South China sea, where China has become increasingly belligerent.
The United States doesn’t take a side in the dispute with Japan or those with other nations, Panetta said, but it does want and end to aggressive actions that could spiral into armed conflict.
“I am concerned that when these countries engage in provocations of one kind or another over these various islands, that it raises the possibility that a misjudgment on one side or the other could result in violence or could result in conflict,” he said.
Panetta said he would urge China to engage with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, for mediation of territorial disputes. China this year said it would work with ASEAN to develop a legally-binding code of conduct to prevent conflict over disputed territory.
The United States remains committed to its strategic rebalance to the Pacific, a region Panetta describes as central to future U.S. military, diplomatic and economic interests.
“It’s not just our presence, but also maintaining and strengthening a system of rules, and norms, and institutions in Asia that have brought decades of security and prosperity to the region and have allowed many nations to thrive,” he said.
Panetta’s swing through the Asia-Pacific region, which concludes with a visit to New Zealand, coincides with an explosion of anti-U.S. violence in North Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. But the United States and its military can handle both regional priorities at once, Panetta said.
“Even as we rebalance to Asia-Pacific, the events of this week remind all of us of the need to maintain a strong presence in the Middle East as well,” he said. “But our military, thank God, is capable of executing this strategy and dealing with the challenges we face in both of these critical regions.”