To prevent the tense situation from further escalation, the U.S. government should take the responsibility to rein in its unruly allies in the region including Japan and the Philippines.
Washington should discourage Japan's provocations and rectify its own wrong position of applying the U.S.-Japan security treaty to China's Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. It also should warn Manila against making further provocations in the South China Sea, and urge it to return to the negotiating table.
When Panetta made remarks before reporters aboard ahead of his landing in Tokyo on Sunday evening, the first stop of his trip, the U.S. apparently was attempting to play a "detached" arbitrator of the territorial disputes, a role that hadn't been invited by any concerning parties.
Panetta said, "I am concerned that when these countries engage in provocations of one kind or another over these various islands, that it raises the possibility that a misjudgement on one side or the other could result in violence, and could result in conflict."
He even alarmed that provocations over the territorial disputes could blow up into a war unless governments exercised more restraint.
To be frank, the U.S. isn't qualified to behave as a judge for the disputes, because it hasn't played a constructive role in the process.
Instead, it shoulders certain historical responsibilities for the chronic disputes, and has, more or less, fanned relevant countries' provocative moves with its biased words or actions and added instability to the region.
Both Japan and the Philippines have been making reckless provocations against China this year in an attempt to obtain undeserved territorial gains in the East China Sea and South China Sea, emboldened by the U.S. "Pivot to Asia" policy, which has featured increased military deployment and involvement in the region.
In the past week, the world witnessed one of the most blatant acts of sabotaging Asian peace and stability by Japan, the staunchest ally of the U.S. in the region, with its completion of the so-called "nationalization" of the Diaoyu Islands that are inherently part of China's sovereign territory. China totally rejects Japan's act of theft, and is taking necessary steps to protect its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
On the dispute, Washington cannot shake off its responsibility for sowing the seeds of conflict. The U.S., through a backroom deal with Japan in 1971, transferred the administration of Ryukyu Islands (known as Okinawa today) and Diaoyu Islands, which were then under the U.S. trusteeship after World War II, to Japan. China has firmly opposed this deal from the very beginning.
Earlier this year, the Philippines, partially encouraged by U.S. support, also sparked a tense standoff with China in the South China Sea by sending a naval ship to harass Chinese fishermen operating legally in China's territorial waters around the Huangyan Islands.
Panetta's China visit, on the bright side, symbolizes the continuation of a good momentum in the U.S.-China relations, which feature regular high-level dialogues and exchanges of visit by senior political and military leaders.
The visit was reciprocal to the one paid by his Chinese counterpart Liang Guanglie to the Pentagon in May.
The visits have helped increase mutual understanding and advance the China-U.S. cooperation partnership and military-to-military ties.
On the other side, due to the current rising tensions in the Asia-Pacific region, the success of Panetta's visit will be judged by how he will reassure Beijing that Washington is willing to do more things conducive to regional peace and stability, which are now threatened by some of the U.S. allies.
The U.S. should understand that, if it continues to allow its allies to fish in troubled waters in the Asia Pacific and let the tensions spin out of control, no countries in the region can escape unscathed.
The U.S. must know better than other countries what it should do to benefit Asia-Pacific stability.
By Zhi Linfei (Xinhua)