TOKYO — Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta on Monday warned that territorial disputes between China and its neighbors could easily spiral into war, as the start of the fishing season in the East China Sea increased the likelihood of confrontations between Beijing and Tokyo over a string of islands there.
Mr. Panetta told reporters traveling with him in Asia that he will encourage Japanese and Chinese leaders to find a peaceful resolution to their competing claims to the islands, which are called Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese.
Tensions between China and Japan spiked last week, when Beijing briefly sent six patrol ships off the islands’ coast after Tokyo had purchased the islands from a private Japanese business owner. Chinese citizens have protested against Japan in cities across China, in some incidents overturning Japanese-made cars and targeting Japanese businesses.
On Monday, the Kyodo news service cited a report on the state-run China National Radio that 1,000 Chinese fishing boats are expected to arrive in waters off the islands.
“We’re concerned by the demonstrations, and we’re concerned by the conflict that’s taking place over the Senkaku Islands,” Mr. Panetta said Monday.
In Asia to advance the Pentagon’s “pivot” to the Pacific region, Mr. Panetta met with Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto and Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba in Tokyo before traveling to nearby Yokota Air Base. There, he met with and addressed about 350 U.S. troops.
The defense secretary arrived Tuesday in Beijing, where he will meet with his counterpart, Gen. Liang Guanglie, and Vice President Xi Jinping, who is expected to be named president in the coming weeks.
“The United States does not take a position with regards to territorial disputes. But the one thing that I am urging is that countries develop a process to resolve these disputes peacefully. That’s what they have to do,” the defense secretary said before departing to China.
At the same time, the U.S. would stand by its treaty to defend Japan against attack, he added.
“Obviously, we stand by our treaty obligations. They’re long-standing, and that has not changed,” Mr. Panetta said. “Having said that, we expect that these issues will be resolved peacefully and, although we understand the differences here with regards to jurisdiction, it is extremely important that diplomatic means on both sides be used to try to constructively resolve these issues.”
Mr. Panetta warned there would be more territorial disputes like this, and urged both sides to abide by codes of conduct established by regional bodies, such as the Association of South East Asian Nation’s code of conduct for navigation rights.
“The reason this is happening is because a lot of these countries look to these islands, look to the resources that are out there, look to offshore drilling, look to energy resources. And so it’s going to become more competitive between countries as they face this issue,” he said.
The start of the fishing season Sunday in the East China Sea, where the Senkaku island chain lies between Japan and Taiwan, raises the chance of a confrontation leading to a flare-up, according to local media reports.
In previous years, Chinese authorities prohibited Chinese fishing ships from approaching waters near the islands to avoid the possibility of a confrontation between fishermen and Japanese coast guard vessels deployed there.