Clinton urges cool heads in Japan-South Korea island dispute

VLADIVOSTOK (Reuters) - U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said on Sunday she believed Japan and South Korea were ready to tone down a row over a disputed island chain that has set two close U.S. allies at odds amid heightened regional tensions with China.

Clinton said she met Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and South Korean President Lee Myung-bak while attending the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Vladivostok and urged them to step back from confrontation.

“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,” Clinton told a news conference.

“I think that’s being heard.”

The Japan-South Korea dispute flared last month when Lee became the first South Korean leader to set foot on the islands claimed by both countries.

Lee’s visit and his call for Emperor Akihito to go beyond expressing “deepest regrets” for Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule triggered a diplomatic tit-for-tat feud, and a rare veiled threat from Japan to flex its economic muscle.

The dispute between Japan and South Korea over the islands known as Dokdo in Korea and Takeshima in Japan has coincided with a standoff between Japan and China over another island chain that sparked anti-Japanese protests in China last month.

Noda, accused by the opposition at home of being too soft on territorial disputes, has walked a fine line, fending off criticism while trying to keep the disputes from spinning out of control.

Last month he described South Korea’s control of the disputed islands as “illegal occupation” - which drew condemnation from Seoul - but also urged a diplomatic solution to the feud.

Tension with China has also risen over the long-running claims to another set of islands, known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan.

In August, Japan’s coast guard detained and deported Chinese activists who sailed from Hong Kong and landed on the islets.

The islands are controlled by Japan and owned by a Japanese family.

China is angry about a plan by Noda’s government to buy the islands, which are near potentially huge maritime gas fields. Noda decided on the purchase after the governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, a harsh critic of China, proposed his own plan to buy the islands.

Ahead of the APEC summit and a trip by Clinton to Beijing, China warned the United States not to get involved in territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

Editing by Sanjeev Miglani