US calls for calm in China-Japan islands spat

Weekend protests across Chinese cities expected to escalate today

BEIJING - The United States has stepped in to calm tensions between China and Japan over a worsening territorial dispute in the East China Sea that saw anti-Japanese protests break out in dozens of Chinese cities at the weekend.

More protests are expected today, which is the anniversary of the 1931 Manchurian Incident, which paved the way for Japan's invasion of north-east China.

US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta, who arrived in Beijing yesterday evening from Tokyo where he held talks with its foreign and defence ministers, told reporters in the Japanese capital that maintaining good relations between the two neighbours was in everyone's interests.

In Beijing, Mr Panetta will meet China's next presumptive leader, Vice-President Xi Jinping, and senior Chinese officials.

Ugly incidents targeting Japanese expatriates and businesses in Chinese cities erupted in the past week, prompting Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to call on Beijing to ensure the safety of Japanese nationals and property.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei yesterday said that China would protect Japanese citizens and businesses and urged the people to act rationally.

Chinese state media also called for restraint.

Violence will only weaken China's case against Japan and lose it respect, counselled the usually hardline Global Times daily, echoing similar appeals by other official Chinese media, after weekend protests that also took place abroad in cities including New York and Berlin.

The appeals came in the wake of the worst anti-Japan unrest in China in years as thousands of angry protesters vented their wrath over Japan's decision to strengthen control over a chain of isles it calls Senkaku. China also claims the chain which it calls Diaoyu and said it was illegal for Japan to nationalise the isles by buying them from their private owner.

Beijing is acting to rein in anti-Japanese sentiment amid fears the unrest may widen and affect an impending top leadership transition in China.

The local authorities began rounding up people suspected of causing damage during the weekend protests. In southern Guangzhou city, 10 people, mainly jobless young men, were arrested for damaging private property. Officials in Xi'an banned protests in parts of the city centre.

But on the economic front, China - Japan's biggest trading partner - is stepping up pressure with the threat of economic retaliation.

China has usually been careful about using such measures but Japan should not push things too far, warned a commentary in the official People's Daily.

It said that though China and Japan, the world's No. 2 and No. 3 economies respectively, would stand to lose in any trade war, Beijing could hit Tokyo where it hurts, such as over strategic materials.

The Chinese suspended exports of rare earth minerals to Japan in 2010 after Tokyo detained a Chinese trawler captain who rammed his vessel into Japanese patrol boats near the disputed isles. Shipments resumed after Tokyo released the man.