Beijing: US President Barack Obama has declared the United States will come to the defence of Japan in an event of a territorial conflict with China in the East China Sea, drawing an angry response from Beijing.
Mr Obama went further than most observers expected by affirming that Tokyo’s dispute with Beijing over a group of uninhabited islands – known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China – was covered by a post-war security treaty between the two strategic allies.
Obama reassures Japan over disputed islands
US President Barack Obama confirms defence backing for Japan should China attempt to seize disputed islands in the East China Sea.
“Our commitment to Japan’s security is absolute and article five [of the security treaty] covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku islands,” Mr Obama said during a joint press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on Thursday.
But Mr Obama, who will visit both China and Australia later this year, said he had not drawn any new “red line”, and urged Tokyo and Beijing to engage in peaceful dialogue over the islands.
“We don’t take a position on final sovereignty on the Senkakus, but historically, they’ve been administered by Japan and should not be subject to change unilaterally.
The diplomatic challenge for Mr Obama during his week-long tour of Asia – he will also visit South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines – is to convince regional allies the US remains serious about its promised strategic "pivot" towards Asia, billed as the foreign policy centrepiece of his administration, while not harming ties with China, the world’s second-largest economy with a fast-growing military presence.
The renewed tensions take the sheen off a naval code of conduct agreed between more than 20 nations in the Pacific, including Australia, China, Japan and the US, aimed at reducing the very risk that the maritime tensions in the East and South China seas pose – that an accidental encounter could spiral into a broader military conflict. The Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, or CUES, was endorsed by officials, including Australia's Chief of Navy Ray Griggs, at a symposium in the north-eastern port city of Qingdao on Tuesday.
It also highlights the difficult position Australia – signatory to a strategic trilateral communique with both its US and Japan allies – would be put in if an unexpected conflict breaks out in the East China Sea.
Responding to Mr Obama's remarks in Tokyo, Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said the disputed islands were an “inherent part of Chinese territory”.
“The Chinese army is fully capable of safeguarding the Diaoyu Islands," he told a regular press briefing on Thursday. "We don't need to bother other countries to offer the so-called security and protection over the islands. Some people in Japan always tend to hype up this issue, but, in fact, they're just making a big fuss out of something only they'd like to believe," he said.
On Thursday, a commentary carried by the official Xinhua news agency said Mr Obama’s defence commitment effectively gave Mr Abe a “risky war trigger at the hawkish Japanese leader’s hands”.
“With an unscrupulous Abe going further down the road to challenge post-war international order and make Japan a 'normal state', Obama's defence commitment would leave the United States hijacked by Japanese right-wing forces and turn Japan-US military alliance into a war machine that threatens peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region and the rest of the world,” it said.
Liu Mingfu, a retired senior colonel of the People’s Liberation Army, said the US was directing its pivot back to Asia because it was wary of China surpassing it as the world’s leading power. America, he said, wanted Asia to be like a basket of crabs - with China and Japan nipping at each other.
China’s decision to unilaterally declare a military-enforced air defence identification zone over the East China Sea was criticised as potentially upsetting the status quo by Japan, the US and Australia late last year.
Mr Abe’s administration, on the other hand, has been criticised for a conservative push to recast Japan’s war record, including a symbolic visit to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine in December, seen as glorifying Japan’s past militarism.
"Seventy years ago, when the war ended, Japan gave grave damage and pain to many people, particularly people in Asia. Japan started taking post-war steps by reflecting on this. Japan and Japanese people have continued to take the path of peace for the past 70 years," Mr Abe told the joint news conference in Tokyo.