Showing solidarity with Japan, President Barack Obama affirmed on Thursday that the US would be obligated to defend Tokyo in a confrontation with Beijing over a set of disputed islands, but urged all sides to resolve the long-running dispute peacefully.
Wading cautiously into a diplomatic minefield, Obama insisted the US takes no position on whether the islands in the East China Sea are ultimately in the dominion of China or Japan.
But he noted that historically Japan has administered the islands, triggering America’s treaty obligations to defend its ally should tensions escalate militarily.
“We do not believe that they should be subject to change unilaterally,” Obama said at a news conference with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “What is a consistent part of the alliance is that the treaty covers all territories administered by Japan.”
The dispute over the islands, called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China, has badly strained relations between the two
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Although Obama has sought to avoid getting dragged in to territorial disputes an ocean away, Japan and other US allies see the disputes through the broader lens of China’s growing influence in Asia, where Obama arrived yesterday at the start of a four-nation, eight-day tour.
China is not on Obama’s itinerary, but concerns about the Asian powerhouse are trailing the president nonetheless. Beijing is watching closely for signs that US is seeking to limit China’s rise, while smaller nations are looking to Obama for affirmations that his vaunted push to increase US influence in Asia hasn’t petered out.
Obama’s advisers insist that the trip, and the White House’s broader Asia policy, is not designed to counter China’s growing power, and they say the president is not asking Asian nations to choose between allegiance to Washington or Beijing.
“We want to continue to encourage the peaceful rise of China,” Obama said.