TOKYO, Japan -- Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta on Saturday urged China and its neighbors not to engage in “provocative behavior” over disputed islands and maritime claims, warning that it could escalate into a regional conflict that might draw in the U.S.
“I am concerned that 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,” Panetta told reporters traveling with him to Asia aboard a U.S. Air Force jet.
Over the last year, China has stepped up its territorial claims in the South China Sea and other waters off its coast, raising tensions with the Philippines and Japan, two U. S. treaty allies that have long-running maritime disputes with Beijing, often fueled by undersea oil and gas deposits and other resources.
Panetta arrived in Tokyo on Sunday at the start of a weeklong trip to Asia that will also take him to China for the first time since he took over the Pentagon, and to New Zealand, the first stop there by a U.S. Defense secretary in three decades.
Japan’s government last week announced that it was purchasing three of five small islands in the East China Sea from private owners, prompting protests in China, which also claims them.
In late June, China announced it was establishing a military garrison in the disputed Paracel Island in the South China Sea. It also clashed with the Philippines over Scarborough Shoal, a fishing ground near the Philippine coast.
The rising tensions over territorial claims have added a further complication to an already tricky visit for Panetta, who hopes to use the trip to ease tensions with Beijing at the same time the Obama administration is implementing a new defense strategy that in many ways seems aimed at China.
At the same time, Obama administration officials have grown increasingly worried that the security strategy that emphasizes rebuilding the U.S. military presence in the Asia Pacific region may have the unintended effect of encouraging longtime allies to be bolder in confronting China, thinking they can count on U.S. military backing.
Panetta emphasized that his call for restraint in the region applies not just to China but to other countries in the region. He emphasized that Washington is not taking sides in the territorial disputes, an implicit warning to allies not to assume Washington will rush to their defense if they provoke a crisis.
But he also urged China to join a regional effort sponsored by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to mediate some of the claims, a step Beijing has rejected.
“The United States does not take a position with regards to territorial disputes, but we do urge not just China but the other countries that are involved to engage in a process in which they can peacefully resolve these issues,” he said.
Tensions between Washington and Beijing are already high over China’s increasing military modernization effort and the U.S. Asia strategy, announced by President Obama last fall. It calls for shifting ships and troops to Southeast Asia and for rebuilding Washington ties with longtime allies, such as Thailand and the Philippines, and for forging new defense ties with Vietnam and India.
In Beijing, Panetta is scheduled to meet with Gen. Liang Guanglie, China’s defense minister and other top officials. He said he would urge them to deepen military cooperation with the Pentagon.
“We recognize the challenges that we have in the relationship,” he said. “But I think it is in both our nation’s interests to work towards a healthy, stable, reliable and continuous military to military relationship.”
-- David S. Cloud
Photo: U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, right, walks with Lt. Gen. Salvatore A. Angelella, commander of U.S. Forces Japan, upon arriving at Yokota Air Base on the outskirts of Tokyo. Credit: Larry Downing / Associated Press