US to help Japan steady its ties with China

Washington urges peaceful resolution of isles spat, says it won't take sides

TOKYO - The United States and Japan have agreed to work together to ensure that relations between Japan and China, currently locked in an escalating territorial row, will not be severely impaired.

The agreement came in talks here between US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta and Japanese Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba yesterday.

One of the aims of Mr Panetta's visit to this region - his third in 11 months - is to urge China and Japan to cool their escalating dispute over the Senkaku islands, which the Chinese call Diaoyu.

It was in everyone's interests for both sides to maintain good relations, he told reporters, adding that Washington hopes for a peaceful resolution, and stressed that it will not take sides.

"The United States, as a matter of policy, does not take a position with regard to competing sovereignty claims. Having said that, we expect that these issues will be resolved peacefully and... that diplomatic means on both sides be used to try to constructively resolve these issues," he said.

Mr Gemba reportedly told Mr Panetta that Japan will deal with the dispute in a "cool-headed manner from the perspective of overall relations with China".

Speaking to reporters separately after their meeting, Mr Gemba said Tokyo and Washington agree that the Senkakus are covered by their bilateral security treaty.

But Mr Gemba said he did not bring up the matter during the meeting, apparently to avoid further ruffling feathers in Beijing, the next stop of Mr Panetta's latest Asian swing.

He urged Beijing to take "appropriate measures" and "uphold law and discipline" following rowdy anti-Japanese protests across China over the weekend.

A commentary in China's official Xinhua news agency yesterday said Washington was wrong to apply its security treaty with Japan to the Diaoyu islands.

The commentary said that the US was not qualified to behave as a judge in the dispute and that no party had invited it to act as a "detached" arbitrator.

"The US should understand that if it continues to allow its allies to fish in troubled waters in the Asia-Pacific and let the tensions spin out of control, no countries in the region can escape unscathed," it warned.

Mr Panetta, who held separate talks with Defence Minister Satoshi Morimoto, told reporters later that both sides agreed to install a second defence system in Japan to counter possible missile attacks from North Korea.

Despite US officials' assurance that the radar system was not aimed at China, analysts in Beijing say they believe the missile shield would embolden Japan in the current territorial dispute, the New York Times reported.

Mr Panetta arrived in Beijing yesterday evening for his first visit to China as defence secretary. US officials earlier announced his trip would be extended by a day and will include a meeting with Vice-President and China's leader-in-waiting Xi Jinping tomorrow.

wengkin@sph.com.sg