U.S. Says Disputed Islands Covered by Japan Defense Treaty

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said islands at the heart of a dispute between Japan and China fall under an American defense pact with Japan, while urging the sides to resolve the standoff via diplomacy.

“We want to focus more on issues associated with the maintenance of peace and stability and less on the particular details of this very complex and challenging matter,” Campbell told a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s East Asian and Pacific Affairs subcommittee yesterday. He said the islands fall under a treaty which obligates the U.S. to defend Japan if it’s attacked.

The U.S. doesn’t take a position on the sovereignty of the islands, known as Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese, Campbell said. His comments echoed those of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said in 2010 that the islands fall under “mutual treaty obligations” with the Japan government.

Japan’s purchase last week of the islands triggered protests and attacks on Japanese businesses in China, straining ties between Asia’s two biggest economies. In a meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta this week, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie said his government reserves the right to take further action in the worst diplomatic crisis between the two countries since 2005.

“We have stated very clearly that we want this issue to be resolved peacefully through dialogue between Japan and China,” Campbell said. The U.S. is concerned “by recent demonstrations, and frankly the potential for the partnership between Japan and China to fray substantially in this environment,” he said.

Competing Claims

China claims that it’s owned the islands for centuries, while Japan argues it took administrative control of them in 1895, lost control of them after World War II and had the islands returned to it by the U.S. in 1972. The dispute sparked demonstrations across China, including at the Japanese embassy in Beijing and the consulate in Shanghai. Japanese retailers yesterday reopened stores in China as protests waned.

China is committed to solving disputes over territory and maritime rights peacefully, Vice President Xi Jinping said in a speech at the China-Asean Business and Investment Summit in southern China today.

At the same time, China will defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity, Xi said.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda said today the country must be firm “without being provocative or being provoked” on territorial issues.

Trips Canceled

Chinese tourists canceled between 30 and 40 percent of trips to Japan last week, Citigroup analyst Vivian Tao said in a note. Cancellations may rise during the week-long holiday in China that starts Oct. 1, and the impact on airlines is “negative, but manageable,” Tao said in the note.

“China-Japan business relations have obviously been affected by Japan’s purchase of the Diaoyu Islands,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in Beijing today. “Japan should face squarely the realities and correct its mistakes.”

Panetta said Sept. 19 in Beijing that China must move beyond the “deep wounds” caused by Japan in World War II in addressing present-day issues such as the island dispute. He also said the Japan-U.S. alliance shouldn’t be viewed by China as American support for the Japanese point of view on the island standoff.

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a Chinese-speaking former diplomat, today during a visit to Singapore said he is concerned about “the capacity for escalation” in the dispute.

“Calm heads are necessary, restraint is necessary and I’m optimistic that leaders on both sides in Tokyo and Beijing will be able to manage this,” Rudd told reporters.