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U.S. envoy calls for ‘cooler heads’ in Asian island dispute


TOKYO » A top U.S. diplomat called on Thursday for "cooler heads to prevail" in an emotional row over disputed islands that have raised tensions in Asia, urging the leaders of China and Japan to begin private consultations aimed at avoiding a potentially dangerous escalation.

Kurt M. Campbell, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, also urged Japan’s new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to hold behind-the-scenes talks with South Korea to defuse a separate territorial dispute as well as disagreements over history that have driven a wedge between the two countries, the United States’ two closest allies in the region.

Campbell led a delegation that included officials from the Pentagon and White House who are among the highest-ranking Americans to visit Japan and South Korea since conservative, pro-Washington leaders won elections in both nations last month. The delegation arrived here in Tokyo on Wednesday after a two-day visit to the South Korean capital, Seoul, where Campbell met the South Korean president-elect, Park Geun-hye.

Campbell said the delegation took time to consult on the fast-moving crisis in Algeria that started when Islamist gunmen seized hostages at a gas plant including U.S. and at least three Japanese citizens. He said U.S. and Japanese officials were "in very close, hourly consultations" on the issue.

The main goal of the Asia mission appeared to be coordinating a mutual response to China’s increasingly assertive claims in regional waters, as well to the recent launch of a long-range rocket by North Korea. Japanese officials said talks on Thursday focused on Japan’s continuing standoff with China over the uninhabited island group, known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in Chinese.

Tensions appeared to rise last week after fighter jets from both nations tailed each other in airspace near the islands, raising fears in Washington of a mishap spiraling into a full-blown military clash that could embroil the U.S., which is obligated by treaty to come to Japan’s defense.

"We’ve made very clear our desire to see cooler heads prevail and the maintenance of peace and stability overall," Campbell told reporters. At the same time, he said the U.S. would not serve as mediator — a sign, said analysts, that Washington wants to avoid getting drawn too far into the thorny regional disputes.

That stance has drawn criticism in Japan, China and South Korea that the U.S. is not taking enough responsibility for conflicts it helped create by drawing the current borders after breaking up the Japanese empire at the end of World War II.

In Tokyo, analysts and politicians said the Americans’ visit was also aimed at soothing ruffled feathers after the Obama administration turned down a request by Abe to visit Washington this month, in what was viewed by some Japanese as an embarrassing rebuff for the new prime minister. U.S. officials have said they had simply asked that the visit be delayed until new secretaries of state and defense assumed their duties.

The Americans were sent to Tokyo "to communicate the firm commitment of the Obama administration to continuing to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance," said another member of the delegation, Daniel Russell, the National Security Council’s senior director for Asia.

The delegation also praised the Abe administration’s efforts to strengthen ties with the U.S. At Japan’s request, the two nations began talks on Thursday on updating guidelines that were written in 1997 to govern how the U.S. and Japanese militaries would cooperate during a crisis, Japanese officials said.

Another goal was to privately urge that the hawkish Abe not further worsen ties with South Korea by revising official apologies made by Japan in the 1990s to victims of its early 20th century militarism, analysts and Japanese politicians said.

Those concerns were raised in September when Abe vowed during an internal party election to revise a 1993 apology to so-called comfort women from Korea and elsewhere who were forced into sexual servitude for Japan’s wartime military. Like many on Japan’s right, Abe rejects the claim by many historians and the South Korean government that the Japanese military had a direct role in coercing the women to become sex slaves.

The emotionally charged issue of the women helped lead to the recent deterioration in ties between Japan and South Korea. South Korean officials say anger at Japan’s refusal to officially compensate the women was what drove President Lee Myung-bak to pay a visit over the summer to the islands controlled by South Korea but claimed by both countries, which in turn provoked outrage in Japan.

When asked whether he raised the sex slave issue in his talks with Japanese officials, Campbell said "we support the efforts that the Japanese government has taken to reach out to South Korea," an apparent reference to a special emissary whom Abe sent to Seoul earlier this month to mend fences by meeting with the incoming president.

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