President Obama on Tuesday invoked U.S. military defense guarantees for Japan’s disputed East China Sea islands that have been the target of coordinated Chinese military provocations since 2012.
During a Rose Garden press conference with visiting Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Obama repeated a promise to defend the Senkaku Islands, a statement that is likely to anger China, which claims the uninhabited islands as its own, calling them the Diaoyu Islands.
"I want to reiterate that our treaty commitment to Japan’s security is absolute, and that Article 5 covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including Senkaku Islands," Obama said in a carefully crafted statement.
Additionally, Obama noted growing concern over China’s South China Sea assertiveness. Beijing has claimed some 90 percent of the sea as its maritime domain, putting it in conflict with Vietnam, the Philippines, and other regional states.
"We share a concern about China’s land reclamation and construction activities in the South China Sea, and the United States and Japan are united in our commitment to freedom of navigation, respect for international law, and the peaceful resolution of disputes without coercion," he said.
The presidential statement of support comes as Japan works to adopt a new interpretation of its pacifist constitution that will permit the use of weapons and military forces for collective self-defense and for so-called "gray areas," such as remote island disputes. Legislation to codify the new legal interpretation is pending before Japan’s legislature.
The announcement also comes amid revised U.S.-Japan defense guidelines that analysts say are designed to counter China’s regional aggression.
The treaty article mentioned by the president is part of the 1960 U.S.-Japan Security Treaty. It states that an armed attack on either country would prompt action "to meet the common danger." Other lower-level U.S. officials have made the commitment in the past. But it was the second time in two years that Obama mentioned the military commitment, giving it more political weight.
Chinese Embassy spokesman Zhu Haiquan said the Diaoyu island and its affiliated islands "are China's inherent territory."
"No matter what others say or do, the fact that the Diaoyu islands belong to China cannot be changed, and the determination and will of the Chinese government and people to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity will not be shaken," he said.
Zhu said the U.S.-Japan alliance was forged during the Cold War. "We are firmly opposed to making use of this alliance against the interests of a third party including China," he said. "We urge the U.S. side to be discreet with what it says and does, honor its commitment of not taking sides on issues concerning territorial sovereignty, and do more to promote regional peace and stability, instead of the other way around."
The president’s statement follows a similar commitment he made a year ago during his visit to Japan and further signals to the Chinese that the United States, while stating it is neutral in territorial disputes, affirmed that U.S. defenses could be used to assist Japan in any Chinese attempt to seize the islands by force.
John Tkacik, a former China specialist with the State Department, said Obama’s statement was significant. The Senkakus have been a central concern of the U.S.-Japan alliance since the islands were handed over to Japan by the United States in 1972, he said.
"Tokyo rightly considers the islands a touchstone of the alliance's durability," Tkacik said.
"The tenor of President Obama's reaffirmation of U.S. commitment to the alliance, and specifically the Senkakus, was at least as firm as past presidents, and actually may even be more explicit than any other president personally has given," he added.
"It's an indication that President Obama appreciates the gravity of the strain China's aggressiveness in the Okinawa area has placed on the alliance."
The strong statement is "a signal to friend and foe alike in Asia that the alliance is psychologically prepared for even new regional pressures—particularly from China," Tkacik said.
The small group of islands is located south of Japan’s Ryuku island chain, and north of Taiwan in the East China Sea. At stake in control of the islands are large undersea oil and gas deposits coveted by both countries, neither of which has large natural energy resources. The islands also are used for commercial fishing.
China last year imposed an air defense identification zone over the sea covering the islands. The United States, Japan, and South Korea said they do not recognize the Chinese defense zone.
Despite the recent disclosure of a 1969 Chinese Foreign Ministry map that labeled the islands as Japan’s Senkakus, China’s government over the past five years has launched a concerted program that seeks to assert Beijing’s control over the islets.
The effort has included frequent warship and maritime patrol vessels to sail in waters near the islands, as well as manned and unmanned aircraft flights.
Japanese fighter interceptors have been scrambled more than 300 times in the past year to intercept intruding Chinese aircraft near the islands.
Chinese naval vessels also frequently sail waters near both the Senkakus and Okinawa as part of what analysts say are systematic military provocations linked to the maritime claims.
China also has encouraged Chinese fishing vessels to fish the waters near the Senkakus.
The Japan-China island dispute accelerated after Tokyo purchased three of the five islands in September 2012. China’s government then orchestrated public protests and rioting against Japanese interests in Japan.
The Obama administration also concluded a new revision of the defense guidelines that analysts say is designed to bolster Japan’s ability to use military forces outside the country.
China’s communist government has been engaged in a vigorous propaganda campaign against Japan for the past several years, using what a Japanese vice defense minister has called "three warfares"—non-kinetic means involving propaganda, legal battles, and state-controlled media.
Japan has been central to the administration’s shift in focus to the Asia Pacific region, a shift that has been hampered by increasing Middle East conflict in that region.
Abe, in his remarks, said Japan and the United States are "united in our resoluteness in opposing unilateral attempts to change the status quo in whatever form," an indirect reference to China’s growing aggressiveness in Asian territorial disputes.
"Any dispute should be resolved peacefully based on international law and not through coercion or intimidation," Abe said. "Japan welcomes the United States policy of rebalancing, which emphasizes the Asia Pacific."
Asked if stronger U.S.-Japan ties will be viewed as a provocation by Beijing, Obama said the alliance has maintained peace throughout Asia and has underwritten Asia’s prosperity, including China’s growth.
"And so, no, we don’t think that a strong U.S.-Japan alliance should be seen as a provocation," he said. "And we are seeking to strengthen military-to-military cooperation with China even as we continue to upgrade our alliance efforts."
Obama said "real tensions" were produced by Chinese maritime claims in Asia but that was not a result of the U.S.-Japan alliance. "It’s primarily a conflict between China and various claimants throughout East Asia and Southeast Asia in which they feel that rather than resolve these issues through normal international dispute settlements, they are flexing their muscles," he said, adding that China was told "that's the wrong way to go about it."
On the revised defense guidelines, Abe was asked if closer U.S.-Japan ties would result in Japanese forces becoming involved with U.S. conflicts. Abe said such assertions were made about earlier defense revisions and were proved wrong.
The new guidelines will allow for a "seamless response" to regional crises, Abe said, and thus strengthen deterrence of conflict.
"The Japan-U.S. alliance would be more efficient and more functional," he said. "Deterrence and response capabilities would be heightened as a result, and this would lead to peace and prosperity of Japan, and regional peace and prosperity as well."
Obama dismissed fears of a new Japanese militarism. "We have seen over multiple decades now that Japan is a peace-loving country, having absorbed some very difficult lessons from the past," Obama said. "Japan does not engage in aggression on the international stage, or in its region."
Obama said the new guidelines are upgrades of capabilities to carry out core alliance functions and will not be a major transformation of Japanese power projection.
"But we do expect that Japan, like all of our allies and like ourselves, will continue to adapt to new threats, understanding that our basic core principle is not territorial ambition, it's not aggression towards others, but it is simply to defend prosperity and liberty and the sovereignty of countries, as we have done together for a very long time."
Update 10:00 A.M.: This article has been updated with comment from a spokesman for the Chinese government.