President Barack Obama warned China the U.S. would protect East China Sea islands administered by Japan and urged the two countries to peacefully resolve a territorial dispute that has raised tensions across Asia.
Obama, speaking today after a meeting in Tokyo with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, said that a security treaty between the U.S. and Japan covers “all territory that is administered by Japan.” The commitment to defend the area is longstanding and he was not drawing a new “red line” with China over the issue, Obama said.
China’s assertiveness in its territorial claims is adding pressure on Obama to demonstrate a commitment to defend allies in Asia at a time when Russia’s push into Ukraine has raised questions about U.S. resolve. No country should feel emboldened by actions such as Russia’s annexation last month of Crimea, Obama said.
“The alternative is a situation in which large countries like the United States or China, or Russia, or other countries feel as if whenever they think it’s expedient, they can take actions that disadvantage smaller countries,” Obama told reporters at a joint briefing with Abe.
Obama met Abe on the first day of a four-nation Asian swing that will also take him to South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines. Talks will focus on promoting pending free-trade agreements and addressing regional security matters such as North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and China’s efforts to assert its claims to much of the East and South China seas.
Standing next to Abe, Obama reiterated that the U.S. views Japan as the sole administrator of the disputed islands, which the president referred to by their Japanese name, Senkaku. China has challenged Japan’s control of the uninhabited islands, called Diaoyu in Chinese, through the positioning of ships and flying of surveillance aircraft.
“It is significant that Obama has become the first president to say categorically that the U.S.-Japan security treaty applies to all Japanese-held territories -- including the disputed islands,” said Tina Burrett, assistant professor of politics at Sophia University in Tokyo. “However, the fact that Obama had to say this highlights the lack of confidence in the alliance felt by some on the Japanese side.”
China opposes the islands being included in the security agreement between Japan and the U.S., Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang said in Beijing today.
“No matter what others say or do, they can’t change the fact that Diaoyu has been under China’s sovereignty, and it won’t shake the Chinese government’s determination and will to protect its sovereignty and marine interests,” Qin said.
In November, China declared an air defense identification zone over a large part of the East China Sea. Japan has ignored China’s demands that it file flight plans before sending planes through the zone, while aircraft and ships from the two countries regularly tail each other around the islands. Japan on April 19 broke ground on a new radar base on its westernmost island to improve surveillance in the area.
“On China, we agreed to create a free and open Asia-Pacific region based on the rule of law and to work together to bring China into that,” Abe said. “We agreed that we would express clear opposition to attempts to change the status quo by force.”
Obama began his day by meeting Emperor Akihito, and he hung a wooden prayer plaque at the Meiji shrine, dedicated to the virtues of an emperor who died in 1912. The President bowed to a robot at a meeting with young science students that he attended with U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy.
At a state dinner about 150 guests, some of them in traditional Japanese dress, dined on roast lamb and a dessert of ice cream in the image of Mt. Fuji, and drank wine and sake. Speaking at the dinner, Obama recalled his first visit to Japan as a six-year-old boy and spoke of “an alliance that will never be broken.”
During his press conference earlier with Abe, Obama called on China to use its influence as North Korea’s closest ally to “contain and mitigate” that regime’s nuclear ambitions. Obama will meet with South Korea President Park Geun Hye tomorrow in Seoul.
The president met today with family members of Japanese citizens who were kidnapped by North Korea, mostly in the 1970s. Obama singled out North Korea as a threat to regional stability after his meeting with Abe, amid signs this week the Kim Jong Un regime may be preparing to test a fourth nuclear device.
Even as Obama pushes to underscore a continued focus on the administration’s rebalancing strategy in the Asia-Pacific, challenges the U.S. faces elsewhere threaten to undercut that effort, and Obama received more questions today about Ukraine.
U.S. officials have been “consistently preparing” to deploy additional sanctions if Russia doesn’t adhere to terms of an agreement reached in Geneva that aimed to reduce tensions in Ukraine, he said. “The fact I haven’t announced them yet doesn’t mean they haven’t been prepared,” he said.
The meeting between Obama and Abe at the Akasaka Palace in Tokyo also failed to resolve differences over the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation trade pact that U.S. officials are pushing to complete. Government negotiators met through the night and into the morning in an effort to close a deal, with differences over some Japanese agricultural products and the auto sector continuing to impede an agreement.
Obama said today that negotiators had made “important progress” and Abe said ministerial-level talks would continue in an effort to reach agreement.
Gaps remain between the two countries on the trade pact, Japanese Economy Minister Akira Amari told reporters after discussions with U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman today in Tokyo. Japan and the U.S. are yet to reach agreement on the automotive sector and agricultural products such as rice, beef and pork, Amari said.
If completed, the accord would be the biggest trade deal in U.S. history, linking a region with about $28 trillion in annual economic output, about 39 percent of the world total. In addition to the U.S. and Japan, the countries in the talks are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
To contact the reporters on this story: Phil Mattingly in Washington at email@example.com; Margaret Talev in Washington at firstname.lastname@example.org; Isabel Reynolds in Tokyo at email@example.com