Tokyo has received yet another commitment from the Biden administration on defending the Japanese-controlled, Chinese-claimed Senkaku Islands as Beijing continues its ramped-up activity near the islets.
Newly confirmed U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday became the third high-level official in a week to reaffirm that the uninhabited islands, known in China as the Diaoyu, fall under the U.S.-Japan security treaty.
In a 30-minute phone call just hours after his Senate confirmation, Blinken told Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi that there was “no change” to the U.S. position on Article 5 of the treaty, which states that the U.S. will defend territories under Japan’s administration in the event of an armed attack, according to the Foreign Ministry.
The move took place as the Japan Coast Guard spotted two Chinese ships near the Senkakus for the 10th straight day on Monday. China has repeatedly sent government vessels near the islands in what some observers say is a campaign to test and slowly erode Japan’s response to the incursions while normalizing the Chinese presence.
Amid China’s assertiveness, the new U.S. defense chief and the national security adviser said on Sunday and Thursday, respectively, that Article 5 would apply to the Senkakus.
The three U.S. officials’ quick pronouncements are expected to put to rest any fears by Tokyo over the new administration’s commitment to defending the far-flung islets, which sit in rich fishing waters also said to be home to vast mineral and gas deposits.
Japanese officials had worked behind the scenes to secure the spate of commitments after Biden’s election and in the wake of a year that saw Chinese government vessels venture near the islets for a record number of days.
Blinken and Motegi also “affirmed that the U.S.-Japan Alliance is the cornerstone of peace, security, and prosperity for a free and open Indo-Pacific region and across the globe,” the State Department said in a statement.
The remarks appeared to again endorse Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy,” which Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, had also advocated.
New U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin delivered similar remarks on the strategy earlier in the week in a call with Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi.
Motegi had high praise for the speed of Blinken’s call to Japan after his formal swearing-in ceremony.
“His talks with Japan, with myself, were the second following Canada,” Motegi said. “This is proof that the Biden administration and Secretary of State Blinken value the importance of the Japan-U.S. alliance and commitment to the Indo-Pacific region.”
But a number of thorny issues remain in store for the two allies, including ongoing negotiations over the costs of stationing U.S. forces in Japan and imperiled trilateral ties between Washington, Tokyo and Seoul.
Motegi said the two had exchanged views on the cost-sharing issue and agreed to work toward a “prompt agreement.”
Trump had reportedly demanded that Japan cough up $8 billion per year for costs associated with hosting U.S. troops — or risk their withdrawal. The Biden administration is widely expected to take a quieter approach to the negotiations, while still asking Tokyo to shoulder more of the costs.
Meanwhile, trilateral U.S.-South Korea-Japan ties — crucial in defending against the North Korean nuclear threat — have hit a wall as relations between Tokyo and Seoul remain at a historic low over history and trade rows.
Blinken, a veteran diplomat and former point man on promoting trilateralism between Washington and its allies in Seoul and Tokyo, is widely expected to devote significant attention to the South Korea-Japan relationship.
In his remarks Wednesday, he “highlighted the importance of continued U.S.-Japan-Republic of Korea cooperation,” the State Department said.
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