US defense chief prepares for Asia trip

Updated: 2012-09-14 02:43

By Zhao Shengnan (China Daily)

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US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will visit Japan days before landing in China later this month, as the two Asian countries continue to feud over territorial rights to the Diaoyu Islands.

Although the islands are important for the US strategic "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific region and to maintain the country's dominant role in international affairs, Panetta is likely to work with Tokyo on controlling the strained situation instead of delivering more support to Japan, analysts said.

According to NHK, or Japan Broadcasting Corp, Panetta is scheduled to meet his Japanese counterpart Satoshi Morimoto and Foreign Minister Koichiro Gemba on Monday. He is also expected to meet Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda.

The stance of the United States, an important ally of Japan, is in the spotlight over the Diaoyu Islands issue. Several US officials have said it has interests in the region but won't take sides in territorial spats between its allies and China. But Washington, which also has said the Diaoyu Islands fall within the scope of the US-Japan security treaty, is widely believed to favor Tokyo.

Panetta's visit was announced one day after Tokyo said the "purchase" of the Diaoyu Islands, which belong to China, from "private owners" was completed on Tuesday. The purchase has sparked wide protests and countermeasures from China.

The visit also followed a series of US-China meetings that are believed to ease the tension between US allies and China over the disputes. One of the visits was US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's unexpected stop in China earlier this month, as well as visits to the US by Defense Minister Liang Guanglie and by Cai Yingting, deputy chief of the General Staff of the Chinese People's Liberation Army.

But still, some US lawmakers blamed China for the flaring regional tension. On Wednesday, Republican US Representative Ileana Ros-Lehitinen, chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, said China was being a "schoolyard bully" toward its maritime neighbors and that it aspires to dominate the region.

Japan is seeking more support from the US amid the row. Seiji Maehara, policy chief of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan, met Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for east Asian and Pacific affairs, to explain why the Japanese government moved to "nationalize" the Diaoyu Islands, Jiji Press said on Thursday.

Washington fully understands the reasoning behind Tokyo's action, Maehara told reporters after the meeting.

Being clear about its role in US ambitions in the Asia-Pacific region, Japan aims to play up US security support and would like to be in the forefront of Washington's Asia-Pacific strategy, said Liu Youfa, vice-president of the China Institute of International Studies.

The US wants to share in the impressive economic growth of the region — in which China is one of the most important players — but the Diaoyu Islands are vital to the US as part of the first island chain off the East Asian continental mainland coast to contain China, he said.

"But Panetta would absolutely not further inflame China-Japan tensions, as Washington knows the situation getting out of control is not in US interests in the region," Liu added.

Washington does not want to see the final resolution of the Diaoyu Islands issue either, said Ruan Zongze, a colleague of Liu.

"Washington wants to see the two countries at odds, so either of them won't challenge its domination role in the world," Ruan said.

Xinhua News Agency said in a commentary on Thursday "it would be self-deceiving that China could not see through Washington's calculations, and such a two-pronged policy of containment and engagement toward China could never possibly underpin a stable and constructive China-US relationship".

"Actually, Japan's relative isolation from the other Asian countries — due to its aggressive history during World War II and irresponsibility over its history — is not helpful to the US strategic shift," Ruan said.

Tokyo's illegal purchase of the Diaoyu Islands appears to be a silly act on the Japanese politicians' part, China Central Television quoted a US expert on international relations as saying.

"Anyone who looks in to international diplomacy will recognize it as something like a joke," he said.

Contact the writer at zhaoshengnan@