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US would defend Japan in islands dispute, Obama says

AFP
3 min

President Barack Obama on Thursday said that the US would be obligated to defend Tokyo if tensions with Beijing escalate militarily over a disputed set of islands, but urged both parties to resolve the long-running dispute peacefully.

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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 noted that, historically, Japan has administered the islands, triggering America’s treaty obligations to defend its ally should tensions rise.

“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 in Tokyo. “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 Asian powers. 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 Wednesday 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 the US is seeking to limit China’s growing importance, 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.

Stance not a rebuke to China

On the island dispute, Obama encouraged the parties to work through the issue “through dialogue” and urged both sides to “keep the rhetoric low”. He downplayed the US commitment to defend Japan as a matter of historical fact rather than a rebuke to China.

“The treaty between the US and Japan preceded my birth, so obviously this isn’t the red line that I’m drawing,” the president said.

China has said it firmly opposes the application of the US-Japan treaty to the dispute over the islands, which sit in strategically important waters to China’s east. China’s government said this week that “the so-called Japan-US alliance” should not harm China’s territorial rights, urging the US to play a constructive role in promoting regional stability.

Abe said he and Obama agreed to cooperate on engagement with China and other issues, including Okinawa, where the US military presence remains a source of tensions. “The Japan-US alliance is more robust than ever before,” Abe said through a translator.

(FRANCE 24 with AP)

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