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U.S. official presses for calm between China, Japan

A senior Pentagon official on Friday called on China and Japan to stop bickering and start talking following weeks of tension around disputed islands south of Okinawa.

Michele Flournoy, the under secretary of defense for policy, called on the two countries to "try to be careful to avoid incidents that could inadvertently
escalate."

"We seek to resolve these disputes through direct talks between the
countries involved and in a peaceful manner," Flournoy told a seminar at. the National Bureau for Asian Research.

On Sept. 7, a Chinese fishing trawler and two Japanese coastguard vessels collided near the island chain called the Senkakus in Japanese and Diaoyutai in Chinese. Japan detained the crew, and then released the crew but kept the captain.

Since then, China has summoned Japan's ambassador five times, demanding the release of the boat's captain. Beijing also postponed talks on joint exploration of a nearby gas field and reportedly took the unilateral decision to move exploration equipment into the area.

Flournoy called on all sides to "make sure that as we have forces that are
operating in the vicinity of one another, we all respect the rules of the
road that are out there."

It is unclear what exactly transpired on Sept. 7 -- whether the Chinese ship rammed the Japanese coast guard vessels or the other way around. China's government has in the past used its fishing fleet and civilian maritime vessels to menace foreign ships operating in disputed waters.

A Chinese maritime administration ship attempted to block the path of a U.S. reconnaissance vessel operating near China's coast early in the Obama administration. China has called on the United States to decrease the "frequency and intensity" of its surveillance efforts near China. The Pentagon has declined the request.

By John Pomfret  | September 17, 2010; 5:30 PM ET
 
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