TOKYO — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta arrived in Tokyo on Sunday for a week-long visit to the region and said he would urge Chinese and Japanese leaders to tone down a brewing political crisis over uninhabited islands in the East China Sea.
A succession of highly charged territorial disputes between China and U.S. allies in Asia — including one this spring between China and the Philippines over some contested islets — is threatening to drag Washington into unpredictable security flare-ups despite the Obama administration’s efforts to ease tensions.
“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 and could result in conflict,” Panetta told reporters while traveling to Japan.
The Obama administration has said it does not take sides in the territorial disputes. But they have arisen at a delicate time as Washington has been seeking to reassert its strategic interests in Asia and shore up its alliances in the face of China’s rising military and economic power.
U.S. officials have been reassuring Japan, the Philippines and other allies that they won’t cede influence in the region to China. But the Obama administration has been less clear about how it would respond if fighting broke out over the disputed islands or ignited a larger conflict.
The most widespread anti-Japanese protests in a generation cascaded across China this weekend in response to the Japanese government’s recent efforts to assert control over some rocky outcroppings known as the Senkaku Islands. Demonstrators threw rocks at the Japanese Embassy in Beijing, attacked Japanese factories and looted Japanese department stores — egged on by anti-Japanese screeds in China’s state-run media.
The protests followed a maritime standoff Friday when six Chinese maritime patrol ships entered Japanese waters to reinforce Beijing’s claim to the islands, which are known as Diaoyu in China. Japan’s Coast Guard responded quickly, and the Chinese vessels eventually backed away.
Under a long-standing treaty with Tokyo, the United States is obligated to come to Japan’s defense if it is attacked. But Washington has not spelled out if it considers the Senkaku Islands to be Japanese territory.
The tensions between China and Japan follow a similar dust-up this spring between China and the Philippines over disputed territory in the South China Sea.
Patrol vessels from both countries engaged in a prolonged standoff after a Philippine navy ship — recently purchased from the United States — detained Chinese fishermen that it charged had been illegally operating in Philippine waters.
The United States also has a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines. Although the Obama administration has been eager to bolster security cooperation with Manila, U.S. officials don’t want to be forced to become militarily involved in obscure territorial feuds.
“I’m pretty frank with people: I don’t think that we’d allow the U.S. to get dragged into a conflict over fish or over a rock,” said a senior U.S. military official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss deliberations within the Obama administration. “Having allies that we have defense treaties with, not allowing them to drag us into a situation over a rock dispute, is something I think we’re pretty all well-aligned on.”
While the maritime feuds have concerned Washington, the U.S. military official noted that China has shown some restraint by sending maritime patrol boats to assert its territorial claims instead of heavily armed warships. “They’ve tended to deal with these things at the Coast Guard level,” the official said.
The squabbles are occurring with more frequency because ownership of the obscure islands can bolster a country’s claim to more expansive maritime borders — and control over resource-rich seabeds of the South China and East China seas.
“We’re going to face more of this,” Panetta said. “Countries are searching for resources. There are going to be questions raised as to who has jurisdiction over these areas. There has got to be a peaceful way to resolve these issues.”
After Tokyo, Panetta is scheduled to stop in Beijing to meet with civilian and military leaders. The trip is his third to Asia since becoming defense secretary in July 2011 and follows a lengthy visit to the region this month by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.