US President Barack Obama yesterday treaded a diplomatic fine line as he reassured Japan that the US would come to its defence over territorial disputes with China, while also calling on Prime Minister Shinzo Abe not to escalate tensions.
In an overt display of unity and reassurance, Obama reiterated a message that Japan has been hoping to hear - that the two countries' mutual defence treaty would cover the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that China calls the Diaoyus and Japan the Senkakus - but he also called on Beijing and Tokyo to resolve any disputes peacefully.
"And let me reiterate that our treaty commitment to Japan's security is absolute, and Article 5 covers all territories under Japan's administration, including the Senkaku Islands," he said after a summit with Abe in Tokyo.
While stressing America's neutral position on sovereignty claims, Obama said Tokyo had historically administered the islands and this should not be "subject to change unilaterally", referring to China's efforts to establish an administrative and military presence in the area.
Until recent years, Washington had been reluctant to publicly clarify its position should a conflict break out between Beijing and Tokyo over the islands.
But in a written interview with Japan's Yomiuri Shimbum published on Wednesday, Obama became the first serving US president to say that the islands were covered by the alliance treaty.
Japanese media reported that the same statement was expected to be included in a joint declaration between the two leaders. The declaration was delayed as negotiators from both countries were still trying to narrow their differences over the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement.
With tensions over the islands intensifying, the US has recently stepped up rhetorical support for Tokyo while criticising China for its "intimidation and coercion" in the disputed area.
Watch: Obama backs Japan in China island row
But Obama yesterday called on his Japanese counterpart to refrain from further provocation and seek dialogue with China.
"I emphasised with Prime Minister Abe the importance of resolving this issue peacefully - not escalating the situation, keeping the rhetoric low, not taking provocative actions, and trying to determine how both Japan and China can work co-operatively together," Obama said.
Obama is using his tour of Asia to reassure allies as bitter territorial disputes continue with an increasingly assertive China.