WASHINGTON – A top officer of the U.S. Navy reaffirmed Washington’s commitment to defending a group of Japan-administered islets in the East China Sea under a bilateral security treaty, while taking the rare step of naming China as a potential aggressor.
“We will clearly defend them if they are attacked by China,” Adm. Harry Harris, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, said Wednesday at a Washington think tank event, referring to the Senkakus, a group of islets also claimed by China.
U.S. leaders including President Barack Obama have already stated that the 1960 security treaty, which obliges the U.S. military to defend Japan if it is attacked, covers the Senkakus, but have not specified a potential aggressor.
Washington says it does not take sides in the rival claims to sovereignty over the islets.
Harris said the possibility of the situation surrounding the Senkakus escalating to a level that could involve the U.S. military under the treaty was “a concern.”
China has frequently sent ships into Japanese territorial waters near the Senkakus, souring political relations between Tokyo and Beijing.
Harris also expressed alarm about China’s unilateral reclamation of land in a disputed area of the South China Sea, a development that the United States has said threatens the stability of the region.
An artificial island China created on Fiery Cross Reef in the Spratly Islands is “clearly militarized or capable of supporting significant military forces there,” Harris told the event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
China conducted test flights of civilian aircraft earlier this month using an airstrip it constructed on the island.
The U.S. government has said territorial claims surrounding artificial islands on submerged reefs are not recognized under a U.N. convention.
In a move angering China, a U.S. destroyer last October sailed near an artificial island China has created in the Spratlys. A flight near one of the artificial islands by a U.S. B-52 bomber in December was described by Washington as an inadvertent error.