U.S. Commander Sees Peaceful End to China-Japan Maritime Dispute

The top U.S. commander in Asia said Japan and China will be able to resolve a territorial dispute peacefully, and called on the region to use arbitration to settle conflicting maritime claims in resource-rich areas.

“In my estimation we are headed toward a peaceful resolution and not toward conflict,” Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told reporters in Bangkok today, referring to the dispute between China and Japan. “And we need to stay on that course.”

Japan’s purchase last month of the uninhabited East China Sea islands led to violent protests in China and hurt Japanese exporters such as Nissan Motor Co. Sovereignty gives the holder control over fishing grounds and natural gas fields, and the spat risks further damaging trade ties that have tripled to more than $340 billion in the last decade.

Locklear’s comments came on the same day seven Chinese warships passed through international waters about 49 kilometers (30 miles) from a southern Japanese island, according to a Japan Defense Ministry statement. That put the vessels about 200 kilometers from the islands claimed by both countries, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese.

“They haven’t been sailing in Japanese territorial waters,” Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto told reporters in Tokyo. “We’re maintaining caution and surveillance of the area, and are gathering information about the Chinese ships,” he said, adding that they were the same vessels that passed through the area in the opposite direction on Oct. 4.

‘Justified and Legal’

The presence of Chinese naval vessels in the area is justified and legal, China Central Television reported today, citing the Ministry of National Defense news bureau. “We are watching closely Japan’s moves and request a stop of any action that may complicate or expand the issue,” the ministry said, according to CCTV.

The two countries agreed last week to talks aimed at reducing tensions over the islands a day after Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda warned that Asia’s two biggest economies would suffer without negotiations. No date was set for the planned vice-ministerial meeting.

Locklear said he was in “very close contact” with counterparts in Japan, a U.S. treaty ally, as well as Chinese military officials. He declined to speculate on how the U.S. would react if the conflict escalated.

Two Countries’ Decisions

“In the end, the military response will be dictated by the decisions that are made by two governments at the highest levels,” Locklear said.

The islands fall under a treaty which obligates the U.S. to defend Japan if it’s attacked, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell told a Congressional committee last month.

Locklear cited a “successful” resolution of a territorial dispute between Myanmar and Bangladesh this year that followed a decision by the United Nations’ International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. He also mentioned that China and Vietnam have previously used arbitration methods.

China has refused attempts to let international bodies rule on its territorial claims in the East China Sea and the South China Sea. Disagreements in the waters have increased tensions as nations vie for oil and gas resources.

China, which has sent more patrol boats into waters claimed by Japan since the purchase, maintains that it has owned the islands for centuries. Japan argues it took control of them in 1895, lost authority after World War II and had them returned by the U.S. in 1972.

Locklear said the U.S. would continue to challenge countries that make “excessive” maritime claims. When asked about harassment of U.S. ships in the South China Sea, Locklear said encounters with vessels from other nations have been “professional and courteous.”

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