Barack Obama warns China that US will back Japan if row over disputed islands escalates

President Barack Obama said the US would show solidarity with Japan and 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 U.S. allies see the disputes through the broader lens of China's growing influence in Asia, where Obama arrived 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. Beijing is watching closely for signs that U.S. is seeking to limit China's rise, while smaller nations are looking to Obama for affirmations that his vaunted push to increase U.S. influence in Asia hasn't petered out.

Obama's advisers insist that the trip - and the White House's broader Asia policy - is not designed to counter China's growing power, and they say the president is not asking Asian nations to choose between allegiance to Washington or Beijing.

“We want to continue to encourage the peaceful rise of China,” Obama said.

A Japan Coast Guard vessel, left, sails along with a Chinese surveillance ship near the disputed islands called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China in the East China Sea A Japan Coast Guard vessel, left, sails along with a Chinese surveillance ship near the disputed islands called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China in the East China Sea 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 U.S. 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.

At the same time, as Obama pressed his case in Tokyo, he was unable to convey the full backing of Congress, which would have to ratify any such pact. Lawmakers, including many of Obama's Democratic allies, have thus far refused to give Obama the fast-track authority needed to ensure an up-or-down vote on the final agreement.

“Abe's got to deal with his politics, I've got to deal with mine,” Obama said.

On the island dispute, Obama encouraged the parties to work through the issue “through dialogue” and urged both sides to “keep the rhetoric low.” He downplayed the U.S. commitment to defend Japan as a matter of historical fact rather than a rebuke to China.

“The treaty between the U.S. and Japan preceded my birth, so obviously this isn't the red line that I'm drawing,” the president said.

China has said it firmly opposes the application of the U.S.-Japan treaty to the dispute over the islands, which sit in strategically important waters to China's east. China's government said this week that “the so-called Japan-U.S. alliance” should not harm China's territorial rights, urging the U.S. to play a constructive role in promoting regional stability.

Abe said he and Obama agreed to cooperate on engagement with China and other issues, including Okinawa, where the U.S. military presence remains a source of tensions. “The Japan-U.S. alliance is more robust than ever before,” Abe said through a translator.

Addressing another source of tension in the region, Obama said he's not optimistic North Korea will change its behavior in the near future. But he said he's confident that by working with Japan, South Korea and others - especially China - the U.S. can apply more pressure so that “at some juncture they end up taking a different course.”

Underscoring his concerns about Pyongyang's behavior, Obama met Thursday with relatives of Japanese citizens that the White House said were abducted by North Korea. Obama recommitted to working with Japan to address the North's “deplorable treatment of its own people,” the White House said.

Later Thursday, Obama planned to return to the Imperial Palace for a state dinner. He also planned to visit the Meiji Shrine, which honors the emperor whose reign saw Japan emerge from over two centuries of isolation to become a world power.

Obama's Asia swing is aimed at reaffirming his commitment to the region even as the crisis in Ukraine demands U.S. attention and resources elsewhere. The ominous standoff between Ukraine and Russia threated to overshadow the trip as the president weighs whether to levy new economic sanctions on Moscow.

The president's stops in Japan, South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines serve as something of a do-over after he canceled a visit to Asia last fall because of the U.S. government shutdown. The cancellation provided fresh fodder for those in the region who worry that the White House's much-hyped pivot to Asia is continually taking a backseat to other foreign and domestic priorities.

Obama began his day with a call on Emperor Akihito at the Imperial Palace, a lush, park-like complex surrounded by modern skyscrapers where he was greeted by a military honor guard and children holding U.S. and Japanese flags. After taking in the scene, the president, emperor and empress walked along a maze of red carpet into the palace for a private meeting, with U.S. Ambassador Caroline Kennedy and other aides trailing behind.

When Obama pointed out that the last time he met the emperor, he didn't yet have any gray hairs, the emperor offered the president a gracious excuse: “You have a very hard job.”

AP

News
Actor Burt Reynolds last year
peopleBurt Reynolds, once among the most bankable actors in Hollywood, is set to auction his memorabilia
News
Gordon and Tana Ramsay arrive at the High Court, London
newsTV chef gives evidence against his father-in-law in court case
News
people

Watch the spoof Thanksgiving segment filmed for Live!
News
The data shows that the number of “unlawfully” large infant classes has doubled in the last 12 months alone
i100Mike Stuchbery, a teacher in Great Yarmouth, said he received abuse
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment
The starship in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
filmsThe first glimpse of JJ Abrams' new film has been released online
Arts and Entertainment
The cover of The Guest Cat – expect to see it everywhere
books'It's a simple, sweet and charming tale; it’s very heartfelt'
News
i100 Charity collates series of videos that show acts of kindness to animals
Arts and Entertainment
One of the installations in the Reiner Ruthenbeck exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery
artCritics defend Reiner Ruthenbeck's 'Overturned Furniture'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Sales Manager

£60k - 80k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game