By Carlo Muñoz - 09/18/12 04:05 PM EDT
China's national defense minister, Gen. Liang Guanglie, told reporters that Tokyo was to blame for the ongoing dispute over the Diaoyutai Islands, off the coastlines of Japan, China and Taiwan, according to reports by The Associated Press.
The Chinese defense chief's inflammatory comments came during a joint press conference with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who was in China during a diplomatic tour through the Pacific.
The Pentagon chief's most recent swing through the Pacific is the second time Panetta has visited the region since taking office last year.
For his part, Panetta told reporters that both Washington and Beijing needed to take "a long term perspective" regarding both countries' strategic goals for the region.
Gauging the success of that approach "is measured less by major breakthroughs than by slow, steady progress over time" as both superpowers continue to push for progress "in areas of mutual interest," Panetta said.
The growing row between China and Japan over the Diaoyutai Islands could threaten to break that slow, steady progress. The dispute has already sparked protests in both countries, turning the location into a potential flashpoint for a regional conflict.
To that end, Washington agreed to begin flying unmanned surveillance flights over the islands as part of a deal struck between Panetta and Japanese Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto held at the Pentagon in August.
The surveillance missions will likely be flown by Air Force Global Hawk drones deployed in the region. Three Global Hawks are already on station at Andersen Air Force Base in Guam.
The decision to move the Air Force drones over the Diaoyutai Islands comes as the Defense Department continues to pursue its overarching strategic shift into the region.
Along with the U.S. drones, DOD officials are reportedly considering plans to increase the number of attack submarines and long-range bombers in the Pacific, as part of that new strategy.
Beijing has repeatedly sought to flex its military muscle in areas in and around the South China Sea, centered on small island chains like the Diaoyutai and Spratlys.
In July, top Chinese officials ordered troops to be stationed at bases located on the Spratlys, resulting in swift condemnation from Washington.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called the deployment "unnecessarily provocative,” adding that the move only served to ratchet up regional tensions between China and its neighbors in the Pacific.