BEIJING (AP) _ A senior U.S. diplomat said Saturday that Washington hopes quiet diplomatic engagements between Japan and China can help keep peace and stability in the East China Sea, where the two Asian countries have a bitter dispute over the sovereignty of a group of islands.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Russel told a group of reporters in Beijing after a tour of the region that the U.S. wants all sides to exercise restraint and manage the disputes through friendly diplomatic means.

“The global economy is too fragile and the world’s interest in economic growth and stability is too strong for the world’s second- and third-largest economies to remain at odds,” Russel said. “Friction and tension between Tokyo and Beijing is a matter of concern to all neighbors and certainly to the United States.”

The uninhabited islands _ known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese _ are controlled by Japan, but also claimed by China.

Tensions flared a year ago after Japan moved to buy the tiny islets, and violent anti-Japan protests erupted in several cities in China, which has long harbored animosity against Japan for its military invasion during World War II.

Although tensions still simmer, last week Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping met briefly on the side of the Group of 20 summit in Russia, raising hopes for dialogue.

“We hope that quiet diplomat engagement between Japan and China bears fruit,” Russel said. “And we note with interest that Prime Minister Abe and President Xi Jinping had some form of encounter or conversation in St. Petersburg.”

Russel said the U.S. takes no position on the issue of territorial claims but that it is in the U.S. interest that peace and stability in the region be maintained.

“We are not neutral on matters of responsible behaviors at sea,” he said. “It is of great concern to the United States as it is to all countries that rely on maritime corridors that there is any risk of an incident that could lead to a crisis or lead to an escalation.”