WASHINGTON (AP) — The world can't afford a conflict sparked by the rumbling sovereignty disputes in the seas of East Asia, a senior U.S. official warned on Thursday.
Top U.S. diplomat for the region Kurt Campbell told a Senate hearing that heightened nationalism and demonstrations were exacerbating the disputes that have simmered for decades. He urged multilateral diplomacy to manage and resolve them.
Conflicting claims over islands have sparked anti-Japan protests in China, which has sent patrol ships inside Japanese-claimed waters. Tensions have also run high in recent months in the South China Sea — a key conduit for global trade, where China has disputes with Southeast Asian neighbors. Two key U.S. allies, Japan and South Korea, are also at loggerheads over other disputed islands.
Campbell said the disputes were extraordinarily difficult to solve, and for the time being, the best path was to prevent them flaring up.
"The world cannot afford a crisis in Asia that would have untold consequences for our economies, and the economies of Asia, Europe and the rest of the world," he told the Senate foreign relations subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific affairs.
The U.S. has long been the predominant military power in the Asia-Pacific and in the past three years has taken a growing diplomatic interest in efforts to resolve the disputes. Emerging power China would prefer the U.S., which has treaty alliances among the disputants, to stay out of the matter. The U.S. says it is neutral and has a national interest in the region's peace and stability.
The committee's chairman, Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., said the region would be far more volatile should the U.S. withdraw its military forces. He said that in the past week, close U.S. ally Japan and China had "come to the brink of open conflict" over the Senkaku islands, called Diaoyu in China.
Campbell reaffirmed that the U.S. stood by its security treaty obligations with Japan and views Japan as maintaining administrative control of the islands. But he said Washington does not take a position on the ultimate sovereignty of the islands that lie near key sea lanes in the East China Sea. He urged dialogue between China and Japan.
"We are concerned by recent demonstrations and frankly the potential for the partnership between Japan and China to fray substantially," he said. "That is not in our strategic interest and clearly would undermine stability in the Asia-Pacific as a whole."
The dispute escalated after Japan's government purchased some of the islands from their private Japanese owners, viewing it as a way to thwart a potentially more inflammatory move by the governor of Tokyo, who had wanted not only to buy the islands but also develop them. Beijing, however, sees Japan's purchase as an affront to its claims and its past calls for negotiations.