The president’s trip to Tokyo is off to a good start, and not just because of his dinner at sushi mecca Sukiyabashi Jiro. In written answers to questions from the Yomiuri Shimbun, President Obama asserted:
The policy of the United States is clear—the Senkaku Islands are administered by Japan and therefore fall within the scope of Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security. And we oppose any unilateral attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands.
While others in the US administration have stated this policy previously, it’s important for the words to come directly from the president himself. The president’s statement, which he will hopefully repeat at his joint press conference with Prime Minister Abe on Thursday, should be reassuring to Japan and other US allies. Beijing may claim that such statements hurt the (apparently delicate) feelings of all 1.3 billion Chinese people, but in reality, personal presidential attention to the Senkaku dispute will contribute to the deterrence of Chinese aggression and thus to stability in the East China Sea.
Also significant, President Obama voiced support for Abe’s “efforts to strengthen Japan’s defense forces and to deepen the coordination between our militaries, including by reviewing existing limits on the exercise of collective self-defense.” According to the Yomiuri Shimbun, the president expressed hope that the Japanese Self-Defense Forces would “do more within the framework of our alliance.”
The encouragement could help Abe pursue reforms domestically, where his national security agenda remains controversial, and might help to calm nerves in South Korea, which is more likely to abide a more ‘normal’ Japanese military if it is acting “within the framework” of the US-Japan alliance. Seoul recognizes the importance of America’s role in keeping the peace in Asia, and a more robust SDF can act as a force multiplier for the USmilitary.
If, over the next week, the president maintains a message of full-throated support for US alliances, he will have taken a small but important step towards defending peace in Asia.