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 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 on 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.
The ominous standoff between Ukraine and Russia threatened to overshadow the trip as the president weighs whether to levy new economic sanctions on Moscow.
“We have been preparing for the prospect that we going to have to engage on further sanctions. Those are teed up. It requires some technical work and also requires coordination with other countries. So the fact that I haven’t announced them yet doesn’t mean that there haven’t been prepared and teed up,” said Obama during Thursday’s news conference.
Seeking to inject fresh urgency into trade talks, Obama said the time is now to resolve issues hindering completion of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
The US has been leading the 12-nation negotiations, but an end-of-2013 deadline was missed and there are few signs of progress toward resolving conflicts with Japan over tariffs and access to Japan’s auto market.
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.
“It was such a fruitful time for us to confirm the ties between the US and Japan and our roles and to exchange dialogue on the possibility of further development of US-Japan relations,” Abe said.
Later on Thursday, Obama planned to return to the Imperial Palace for a state dinner.
He also planned to visit the Meiji Shrine, which honours the emperor whose reign saw Japan emerge from over two centuries of isolation to become a world power.
The president’s stops in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines serve as something of a do-over after he cancelled a visit to Asia last fall because of the US government shutdown.
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