Obama backs Japan in China island row, urges China to help contain N Korea

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US President Barack Obama vowed Thursday to protect Japan from potential attack by China over a tense territorial dispute, but also urged Beijing to help stop North Korea from further developing its “dangerous” nuclear program. Obama described China’s role in keeping its wayward ally in check as “critically important” after South Korea said heightened activity at the North’s main nuclear test site could point to an imminent test – its fourth.

“China’s participation in pushing the DPRK (North Korea) in a different direction is critically important,” the president told a joint press briefing with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “It is the most destabilizing, dangerous situation in the entire Asia-Pacific region,” he added.

Despite that, Obama also underlined US support for Japan, saying that islands at the center of its bitter territorial dispute with Beijing are covered by a defense treaty that would oblige Washington to act if they were attacked.

“Article five (of the US-Japan security treaty) covers all territories under Japan’s administration including (the) Senkaku islands,” he said, referring to the East China Sea archipelago which Beijing calls the Diaoyus. “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.”

Obama added that “this is not a new position” and “there’s no red line that’s been drawn”.

However, not everyone in Japan is happy with the current situation, as dozens of Japanese awaited President Obama outside the Japanese Prime Minister’s official residence to protest against the establishment of US military bases in Okinawa.

Relations between Tokyo and Beijing are at their lowest point for years, and some observers even warn they might come to blows over the islands, where ships from both sides lurk to press claims for ownership.

Japan and other Western-leaning countries claim that China is using its newfound economic and military power to back its territorial claims in the East and South China Seas. Along with Manila – the fourth stop on Obama’s tour – Tokyo craved reassurance that the US was prepared to support it if push comes to shove with Beijing over their separate sovereignty rows.

Yet while the negotiations on security matters proceeded smoothly, progress on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) – a proposed 12-nation free trade bloc – was stalled. Senior US officials and business figures acknowledge progress with Japan is critical to hopes of concluding the TPP, a vital prong of Obama’s Asia pivot. But on Thursday Obama said the two sides had still yet to find common ground, with high tariffs on Japanese agricultural products among the key sticking points.

“Now is the time for bold steps,” he said.

President Obama also visited Meiji Jingu, a huge shrine in central Tokyo dedicated to the Emperor Meiji, whose return to prominence in 1896 marked the birth of modern Japan. After passing through the wide open courtyard, Obama toured the inner shrine and paused at a lectern to write a prayer on a wooden plaque. The tablet would normally be strung on a frame around a large camphor tree in the courtyard, but the presidential prayer was taken away by a priest.

Obama’s trip will also take him to South Korea, Malaysia and the Philippines.

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