The United States is obliged to defend the Senkaku islets in the East China Sea in line with the Japan-U.S. security treaty, U.S. President Barack Obama assured Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on Thursday, while urging Tokyo and Beijing to resolve their territorial dispute peacefully.
The two leaders, however, were unable to issue a joint statement after their summit because they could not reach a broad basic accord on the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact by the end of their talks.
Negotiators from the two countries continued bilateral discussions Thursday afternoon but failed to reach a comprehensive agreement.
“Let me reiterate that our treaty commitment to Japan’s security is absolute. And Article 5 (of the treaty) covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku Islands,” Obama said at a joint press conference with Abe following their 100-minute summit at the State Guest House in the Akasaka district.
The president, however, said the United States does not take a position on the sovereignty of the Senkakus, a phrase repeated many times by Washington officials in the past. But he added that historically, the uninhabited islets have been administered by Japan.
Faced with the difficult task of reassuring Japan about America’s military commitment in the region without inflaming Beijing, Obama stressed that this is the “standard interpretation” of the treaty that past U.S. administrations have maintained, and the position stands.
“The treaty between the U.S. and Japan preceded my birth, so obviously this isn’t the red line that I’m drawing,” he said.
Obama also stressed that China remains an important country to Washington.
“We have strong relations with China. It is a critical country not only to this region but to the world, obviously with its huge population and growing economy,” Obama said.
“We want to continue to encourage the peaceful rise of China. There are enormous opportunities for trade, development, working on common issues, like climate change, with China.”
Abe welcomed Obama’s assurance over the Senkakus, around which military tensions have increased with China since September 2012, when the central government effectively nationalized the islets via a purchase from a Saitama-based owner.
“(The) Japan-U.S. alliance is rock-solid,” Abe said. “We do not tolerate attempts to change the status-quo by force . . . (of) this, I have total utmost faith in Obama.”
Obama, whose key goal at the summit was to reach a basic agreement on the TPP, pressured Abe to make a bold decision, emphasizing that the trade pact is vital to the economic growth of both the U.S. and Japan.
“Japan has the opportunity, in part through TPP, to play a key leadership role in the Asia-Pacific region,” Obama said. “Now is the time for bold steps that are needed to reach a comprehensive agreement. I continue to believe this can be done,” Obama said.
The two nations have been at odds on Japan’s tariffs on five agricultural product categories — rice, wheat, beef and pork, dairy products and sugar.
The two leaders said they also agreed to promote trilateral cooperation among Japan, the U.S. and South Korea over North Korea’s nuclear threat and noted it is critical that China put pressure on Pyongyang.
They also agreed to press ahead with building the Okinawa airstrip needed to replace U.S. Marine Corps Air Station Futenma, with Abe explaining to Obama that the prefecture wants the base closed in the next five years, even though the construction of its replacement has faced years of tough going due to local opposition.
Obama visited the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo’s Odaiba district Thursday as well as Meiji Shrine. He also met with the relatives of people abducted by North Korea.
The president is slated to fly to Seoul on Friday morning. He is the first U.S. president to visit Japan as a state guest since Bill Clinton in 1996.