TOKYO: US President Barack Obama has said Washington welcomes China’s rise but that engagement with Beijing would not come at the expense of its Asian allies — as Chinese state media greeted his arrival in the region with a broadside accusing the United States of wanting to “cage” the emerging superpower.
The reassuring remarks aimed at Japan and other allies, set against a robust commentary from China’s state news agency Xinhua that also called the United States “myopic,” demonstrate the delicate balancing act Obama faces on a week-long Asia tour.
Obama arrived in Tokyo yesterday at the start of a four-nation trip that comes at a time of rising tension in the region, and as the United States urges Japan’s unpredictable neighbour North Korea not to conduct another nuclear test.
Obama, who is making the first full state visit to Japan by a US President since 1996, must assuage worries by Tokyo and other allies that his commitment to their defence in the face of an increasingly assertive China is weak, without hurting vital US ties with Asia’s biggest economy.
Obama and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are also keen to show progress on a two-way trade pact seen as critical to a broader regional deal that would be one of the world’s biggest trade agreements and is central to Obama’s “pivot” of military, diplomatic and trade resources towards Asia.
Noting Beijing and Washington could work together on issues such as North Korea’s nuclear programme, Obama told Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper, in written remarks: “In other words, we welcome the continuing rise of a China that is stable, prosperous and peaceful and plays a responsible role in global affairs.”
He added: “And our engagement with China does not and will not come at the expense of Japan or any other ally.”
Japan, whose relations with rival China have chilled over the past two years, has been beset by anxiety over the degree to which reality matches rhetoric in Obama’s promised “pivot.”
China, for its part, fears the US is pursuing a policy of containment through its network of Asian allies, several of whom have long-standing territorial disputes with Beijing in the East and South China Seas.
Obama and Abe are expected to send a message of solidarity after strains following Abe’s December visit to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, seen by critics as a symbol of Japan’s past militarism.
Obama also assured Japan that tiny isles in the East China Sea at the heart of a territorial row with China are covered by a bilateral security treaty that obligates America to come to Japan’s defence. That is long-stated US policy, but the confirmation by the president is likely to be welcome in Japan. “The policy of the United States is clear - the Senkaku islands are administered by Japan and therefore fall within the scope of ... the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security,” Obama said, using the Japanese name for the islands that are known as the Diaoyu in China, which also claims them.
China reiterated that it “resolutely opposed” the islands being part of the security treaty.