US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, speaking ahead of his trip to Asia, warned that the web of diplomatic spats over territorial disputes could entangle China and other Asian countries into warfare, AFP reports.

The region saw a string of backlashes over the previous months as nations continue a tug-of-war for islands and surrounding waters crucial to sovereignty, resources and trade. Mr. Panetta, expected to arrive in Tokyo this week, warned that territorial disputes could end up in warfare “if governments keep up their provocative behaviour”, according to reporters.

In April, China was locked in a maritime standoff with the Philippines over the Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, with both sides deploying vessels in the surrounding waters. China threatened a “small-scale” war while the Philippines welcomed US vessels onto its ports as part of a mutual defense treaty to help the decrepit Philippine navy. China also “vehemently opposed” Vietnam’s maritime law. The ASEAN attempted to formulate a Code of Conduct with China but failed to make progress.

While tensions in the South China Sea have died down, the focal point seemingly moved to the East China Sea, where historical scars dragged relations already frayed by territorial disputes. South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s unprecedented visit to the Dokdo Islands came under condemnation and threatened to drag cultural and societal relations with Japan. Japan proposed to take the dispute to the International Court of Justice, but South Korea refused.

Tokyo’s plan to purchase the Senkaku, or Diaoyu in Chinese, quickly triggered uproar in Beijing. Tensions have steadily mounted since Hong Kong activists were arrested after attempting to plant a Chinese flag on the Senkaku. Anti-Japanese sentiment reverberated in Beijing despite the Chinese government’s efforts to stave off further dragging relations to a downward spiral. Fresh protests broke out across China after Japan announced Tuesday that it nationalized three islands of the chain. Protesters threw eggs and plastic bottles at the Japanese embassy and attacked several Japanese-owned department stores.

“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 misjudgement on one side or the other could result in violence, and could result in conflict,” Mr. Panetta told AFP. “And that conflict would then have the potential of expanding”. Mr. Panetta echoed US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to “strongly urge that these countries – rather than engaging in that provocative behaviour – engage in an effort to find ways to peacefully resolve these kind of issues”.