President Obama affirmed Thursday that U.S. treaty obligations to Japan extend to a chain of contested islands in the East China Sea, even as he emphasized that Japan and China should seek a peaceful resolution to the dispute. Obama said the United States does not take a position “on final sovereignty over the islands,” which are called the Senkaku by Japan and the Diaoyu by China. But he noted that a long-standing treaty dictates the United States would defend against any attack aimed at Japan. “At the same time,” Obama said, he has told Abe directly “that it would be a profound mistake to continue to see escalation around this issue rather than dialogue and confidence-building measures between Japan and China.” Obama emphasized that the position he was articulating “is not new.”
Responding to Obama’s remarks, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang told a daily press briefing in Beijing that the islands belonged to China. “The so-called U.S.-Japan security treaty is a product of the Cold War era and it cannot be aimed at a third party and ought not to harm China’s territorial sovereignty,” he said. The diplomatic challenge for Obama during his week-long, four-nation regional tour is to convince Asian partners that Washington is serious about its promised strategic “pivot”, while at the same time not harming U.S. ties with China, the world’s second-biggest economy. In his statements, Obama also said there were opportunities to work with China, but called on China to stick to international rules. Some of China’s neighbors with territorial disputes with Beijing worry that Obama’s apparent inability to rein in Russia, which annexed Crimea last month, could send a message of weakness to China.