x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Obama reaffirms commitment to Japan on tour of Asia allies

US President Barack Obama assured ally Japan that Washington was committed to its defence, including of tiny isles at the heart of a row with China, but urged peaceful dialogue over the islands.

TOKYO // US President Barack Obama assured ally Japan on Thursday that Washington was committed to its defence, including of tiny isles at the heart of a row with China, but urged peaceful dialogue over the islands.

His comments drew a swift response from China, which said the disputed islets were Chinese territory.

Mr Obama also urged Japan to take “bold steps” to clinch a two-way trade pact seen as crucial to a broad regional agreement that is a central part of the US leader’s “pivot” of military, diplomatic and economic resources towards Asia and the Pacific.

US and Japanese trade negotiators failed to resolve differences in time for Obama and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to shake hands on a deal at the summit. The leaders reported progress, but a Japanese official said later that there were too many issues to resolve by the end of the day.

Mr Obama, on the start of a four-nation tour, is being treated to a display of pomp and ceremony meant to show that the US-Japan alliance, the main pillar of America’s security strategy in Asia, is solid at a time of rising tensions over growing Chinese assertiveness and North Korean nuclear threats.

“We don’t take a position on final sovereignty determinations with respect to Senkaku, but historically they have been administered by Japan and we do not believe that they should be subject to change unilaterally and what is a consistent part of the alliance is that the treaty covers all territories administered by Japan,” Mr Obama said.

“This is not a new position, this is a consistent one,” he told a joint news conference after his summit with Mr Abe, using the Japanese name for the islands that China, which also claims sovereignty over them, calls the Diaoyu.

“In our discussions, I emphasised with Prime Minister Abe the importance of resolving this issue peacefully,” Mr Obama added.

While his comments amounted to a restatement of long-standing US policy, there was symbolism in the commitment being stated explicitly by a US president in Japan.

Responding to Mr Obama’s remarks, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang said the islands belonged to China.

Mr Obama also said there were opportunities to work with China - which complains that his real aim is to contain its rise - but called on the Asian power to stick to international rules.

“All of us have responsibilities to help maintain basic rules of the world and international order, so that large countries, small countries, all have to abide by what is considered just and fair,” he said.

Some of China’s neighbours with territorial disputes with Beijing worry that Mr Obama’s apparent inability to rein in Russia, which annexed Crimea last month, could send a message of weakness to China.

The two leaders also agreed that their top trade aides would keep trying to narrow gaps in their trade talks.

Mr Abe has touted the TPP as key to the “Third Arrow” of his economic programme to reinvigorate the world’s third-biggest economy, along with hyper-easy monetary policy and fiscal spending.

Experts had said that failure to reach a final deal could cast doubts on Mr Abe’s commitment to economic reform as well as take the wind of the sails of a drive for a broader TPP agreement.

The diplomatic challenge for Mr 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 US ties with China, the world’s second-biggest economy.

Mr Obama will also travel to South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines.

*Reuters