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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The uninhabited islets in the East China Sea at the center of a bitter dispute between China and Japan are "clearly" covered by a 1960 security treaty obliging the United States to come to Japan's aid if attacked, a top U.S. diplomat said on Thursday.
"We do not take a position on the ultimate sovereignty of these islands," Kurt Campbell, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, told a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee.
Japan has controlled the rocky islets since 1895 - except during the 1945-1972 U.S. post-war occupation of Okinawa - and calls them the Senkakus. China, and rival Taiwan, maintain they have an older claim and call them the Diaoyu islands.
"We do acknowledge clearly ... that Japan maintains effective administrative control ... and, as such, this falls clearly under Article 5 of the Security Treaty," Campbell said at the panel's hearing on Asian territorial disputes.
He told the Senate subcommittee that recent violent anti-Japanese demonstrations in China and other actions that stoked tensions were a growing worry to the United States.
The long-standing territorial dispute bubbled over again last week when the Japanese government decided to nationalize some of the islands, buying them from a private Japanese owner.
"We are concerned ... by recent demonstrations, and, frankly, the potential for the partnership between Japan and China to fray substantially in this environment," said Campbell.
"That is not in our strategic interest and clearly would undermine the peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific as a whole," he added.
The Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between the United States and Japan was signed in 1960 as a successor to a 1951 bilateral security treaty and underpins what is seen as the most important of five U.S. treaty alliances in Asia.
Article 5 says "Each Party recognizes that an armed attack against either Party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes."
The article also commits the allies to report "any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof" to the U.N. Security Council and to halt those actions once the Security Council takes steps to restore peace and security.
He said this stance on the islets is the same that has been articulated by American officials since 1997.
Subcommittee chairman Senator Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat and veteran Asia military expert, urged the Obama administration "to respond, carefully and fully" to Chinese actions in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, where China has other territorial disputes that have intensified in recent years.
"This threat has direct consequences for the United States," said Webb, who noted a declaration in 2004 by the George W. Bush administration and in 2010 by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the U.S. security treaty obligations extended to the disputed islets.
"Given the recent incursion by China into waters around the Senkaku Islands, it is vital that we continue to state clearly our obligations under this security treaty," he said.
Editing by Warren Strobel and Sandra Maler