VLADIVOSTOK, Russia – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged Asian countries embroiled in simmering territorial disputes to work together to ease rather than raise tensions.
Recent flare-ups between Japan and China, China and many of its other neighbors, and Japan and South Korea have soured ties, prompting some leaders not to schedule their usual one-on-one meetings at a Pacific Rim summit that ended Sunday in the far-eastern Russian seaport of Vladivostok.
"Whether we're talking about the South China Sea or the East China Sea, my message has been the same to everyone," Clinton told reporters. "Now is the time for everyone to make efforts to reduce the tensions and strengthen diplomatic involvement toward resolving these tensions."
Given the weakness of the global recovery, any confrontation that might raise doubts over stability and peace in the region would not be in anyone's interest, said Clinton, who was attending the summit of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum on behalf of President Barack Obama.
Clinton said she discussed the territorial issue with the leaders of Japan and South Korea, which are at odds over an islet claimed by both.
"I raised these issues with both of them, urging that their interests really lie in making sure that they lower the temperature and work together in a concerted way to have a calm and restrained approach," she said.
"There does seem to be a recognition on the part of all of the leaders that this region of the world is the economic engine in what is still a fragile global economy," Clinton said.
Clinton said she would work closely with the various Asian countries to help ensure the disputes do not balloon into more serious problems.
"We can't let anything happen. It's not in the interests of any of the Asian countries and it's certainly not in the interests of the United States or the rest of the world to raise doubts and uncertainties about the stability and peace in the region," she said.
Territorial disputes were not on the formal agenda of APEC, whose brief is to promote economic integration and more open trade.
As would be expected at a diplomatic event, despite recent acrimony over the territorial disputes, there were shows of civility. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, seated beside each other at the leaders' "informal retreat," were seen shaking hands as they sat down.
Noda and Chinese President Hu Jintao likewise were seen briefly chatting between meetings.
Afterward, Noda told reporters he had expressed his sympathy for the victims of an earthquake Friday in southwestern China that killed dozens of people.
"As for the Japan-China relationship, China's growth is a chance for the world and we would like to develop it in a strategic manner," Noda said.
Noda noted that Japan also needs to work with South Korea on issues related to rival North Korea, among other things.
Many of the disputed islands are only rock outcroppings, uninhabited or rarely visited. But nationalist fervor has inflamed public sentiment across the region, provoking violent protests in China.
The friction is partly driven by China's increasingly assertive stance regarding its claims over resource-rich waters to the south and east. But the disputes also reflect pressures on relatively weak leaders anxious over public opinion, experts say.
Earlier during her Asian tour, Clinton urged members of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations to present a united front to China in dealing with territorial disputes in the South China Sea. She also discussed the issue with Chinese leaders during meetings in Beijing this week.