President Barack Obama told a Japanese newspaper on the eve of his arrival here that the U.S. considers the small islands in the East China Sea subject to a bitter Chinese-Japanese dispute within the scope of a U.S.-Japan security treaty.
In written remarks to The Yomiuri Shimbun, Obama said that U.S. policy “is clear,” that the tiny, uninhabited islands at the center of a long dispute are administered by Japan and “therefore fall within the scope of Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security.”
Obama used the Japanese name for the islands, Senkaku, rather than the Chinese name, Diaoyu, and said “we oppose any unilateral attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands.”
The newspaper noted that Article 5 spells out U.S. defense obligations to Japan and says his comment “therefore means the United States will defend Japan in the event of a Chinese incursion on the islets, over which China also claims sovereignty.”
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The statement is longtime U.S. policy -- Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel conveyed a similar message last November in a call with Japanese military officials -- but Obama’s remarks made the front page, coming as Obama seeks to reassure Japan and other U.S. allies in the region that are nervous about U.S. commitment to the region more than two years after the administration said it would focus on rebalancing U.S. attention to Asia.
China rattled nerves in the region last November when it expanded its airspace to claim control of the air zone over the contested waters between itself and Japan and analysts say U.S. allies in the region are seeking assurances that the U.S. will honor its commitments.
Japan controlled the eight islands from 1895 to 1945, when they were transferred to U.S. administration at the end of World War II. Japan resumed control in 1972, but China began to assert its claim after oil was discovered beneath the islands in 1968.
In the interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun, Obama said the U.S. would deal “deal directly and candidly” with China over differences on such issues and that he’s told Chinese President Xi that “all our nations have an interest in dealing constructively with maritime issues, including in the East China Sea.
“Disputes need to be resolved through dialogue and diplomacy, not intimidation and coercion,” Obama said.
He also trumpeted his administration’s focus on Asia and sought to reassure Japan that the U.S. relationship with China isn’t a threat to its other Asian allies, saying it’s engagement with China “does not and will not come at the expense of Japan or any other ally.”
The administration is unlikely to broker a deal on the trip to secure its long-delayed trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and Obama made a case for it, noting it would help Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with his efforts to overhaul Japan’s economy.
The pact, he said, “will help support jobs and growth in all our countries and give an added boost to America and Japan’s economic revitalization.”
Obama wasn‘t asked, and didn’t mention Abe’s decision earlier this week to send a ritual offering to the Yasukuni Shrine, a war shrine in Tokyo, where 14 war criminals are honored and which critics view as an unfortunate symbol of Japan's past militarism. Japan’s internal affairs minister and about 150 members of the Diet also visited the shrine ahead of Obama’s visit.
The administration last year expressed disappointment in an Abe visit to the shrine and State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the administration encourages “Japan to continue to work with its neighbors to resolve concerns over history in an amicable way through dialogue.”