(Tokyo) US president Barack Obama has confirmed that the US will defend Japan in a potential confrontation with China over a set of disputed islands.
He also called on both parties to peacefully resolve the long-running dispute that has heightened tensions between the two countries.
Standing alongside Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, Mr Obama was speaking on the first full day of a four-nation visit to Asia.
In a show of solidarity with Mr Abe, Mr Obama affirmed that a treaty between their countries would obligate the US to defend Tokyo in a potential clash with Beijing over islands in the East China Sea, called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China.
Mr Obama said the US takes no position on whether the islands are ultimately in the dominion of China or Japan, but he noted that Japan historically has administered the islands.
“We do not believe that they should be subject to change unilaterally,” Mr Obama said. “What is a consistent part of the alliance is that the treaty covers all territories administered by Japan.”
Although Mr Obama has sought to avoid getting dragged in to territorial disputes an ocean away, Japan and other US allies see them through the broader lens of China’s growing influence in Asia.
Beijing is watching closely for signs that US is seeking to limit China’s rise, while smaller nations want reassurance from Mr Obama that his push to increase US influence in Asia has not petered out.
China reacted angrily to Obama’s very public statement of support for Japan, with a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman saying “we are firmly opposed to the inclusion” of the islands in the US-Japan security treaty.
Mr Obama’s advisers insist 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.
The US president also rejected suggestions that an Asia-Pacific trade deal was in danger as negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) faltered.
Mr Obama said that both the US and Japan must take bold steps to overcome differences threatening completion of the cornerstone of his strategic rebalance to the region.
Talks over the deal broke off hours after Mr Obama spoke and were not expected to resume soon.
Mr Obama called for the US and Japan to resolve disagreements promptly over access to agriculture and automobile markets, issues that are hindering completion of the TPP.
The deal, involving 12 nations overall, is a key component of Mr Obama’s efforts to assert US influence in Asia in the face of China’s ascendancy in the region.
Speaking at a joint news conference with Mr Abe at the Akasaka Palace, Mr Obama said: “Now is the time for bold steps that are needed to reach a comprehensive agreement, and I continue to believe we can get this done.
“All of us have to move out of our comfort zones and not just expect that we’re going to get access to somebody else’s market without providing access to our own. And it means that we have to sometimes push our constituencies beyond their current comfort levels because ultimately it’s going to deliver a greater good for all people.”
That was also a nod to the strong opposition Mr Obama faces at home to the TPP, including from organised labour groups who fear such a deal with leave US workers vulnerable to competition from counterparts in other countries who earn substantially less.
Mr Obama’s fellow Democrats in Congress also oppose granting him authority that would make it harder for lawmakers to change the trade pact. Business groups strongly back the deal, saying it would create jobs and open new markets to US goods.
Akira Amari, the top Japanese negotiator for the TPP talks, said that the talks with chief US trade negotiator Michael Froman “have stopped for now” and were not expected to resume “straight away”, meaning there will be no breakthrough on the agreement during Mr Obama’s visit.
Mr Amari said: “The old issues still remain.”
The US had no immediate comment on the status of the talks following Thursday’s negotiations.
(Tokyo) Addressing another source of tension in the region, Mr Obama said he is not optimistic North Korea will soon change its provocative behaviour. But he said he was confident that by working with Japan, South Korea and others, especially China, the US can apply more pressure so that “at some juncture they end up taking a different course”.
Mr Obama began today at the Japanese Imperial Palace, with a formal greeting by Emperor Akihito, and will end his day there at a state dinner in his honour.
He also spent time taking in some of what Tokyo has to offer, including a visit to the Meiji Shrine, which honours the emperor whose reign saw Japan emerge from more than two centuries of isolation to become a world power.
Mr Obama also gave a pep talk to science students at the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation, also called Miraikan, and played around with Asimo, a humanoid robot made by Honda. Asimo ran across a room and kicked a soccer ball to the president.
“Welcome to Miraikan, Mr President. It is a pleasure to meet you,” Asimo said in true robot-like cadence.
The president will also visit South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines, stops that serve as a do-over after he cancelled a visit to Asia last fall because of the US government shutdown.