Speaking to reporters on his plane en route to a weeklong trip in the region, Panetta said he will urge countries here to find a way to peacefully resolve their problems. He arrived Sunday in Tokyo, the first stop of his trip.
"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 misjudgment on one side or the other could result in violence and could result in conflict and that conflict would then, you know, have the potential of expanding," Panetta said.
The defense chief said his conversations with the Japanese and Chinese would echo what U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told them earlier this month—that they must find a process for settling the disputes. The U.S., he said, does not take a position with regard to the disputed lands.
He said he will strongly urge the Chinese to participate in the process so they can take part in a forum to resolve the issues.
Violent protests against Japan erupted across China this weekend over uninhabited islands. Although Japan has controlled the islands—called Diaoyu in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese—for decades, the Chinese were angry that the
China saw the purchase as an affront to its claim and as further proof of Tokyo's refusal to negotiate over them.
There also have been recent flare-ups over territorial battles between China and many of its other neighbors, as well as between Japan and South Korea.
Japan and South Korea are at odds over an islet claimed by both, and China stoked anger over its increasingly assertive stance regarding its claims over resource-rich waters to the south and east.
"We're going to face more of this," Panetta said. "The countries are searching for resources, there (are) going to be questions raised as to who has jurisdiction over these areas."
This will be Panetta's third trip to Asia in 11 months, reflecting the Pentagon's ongoing shift to put more military focus on the Pacific region. The trip will also include a stop in New Zealand.
Panetta's visit to Japan is also likely to include discussions about the deployment of V-22 Ospreys there. Thousands of people have protested the hybrid aircraft's planned use, saying they are unsafe.
The Pentagon plans to deploy 12 of the aircraft, which take off and land like a helicopter but fly like a plane. U.S. officials have assured Japanese leaders the Ospreys are safe.