US President Barack Obama started his week-long tour of Asia by conducting policy discussions with Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, emphasising the significance of the ties between the two nations. The visit provided an opportunity to the president to send a clear message to China that Washington would stand by its ally in any emergency. It also provided an opportunity to Tokyo to feel reassured about Washington’s commitment to its security. Obama’s visit is extremely significant for a simple reason: it comes at a time of heightened tensions due to a territorial dispute between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands, also known as the Diaoyu Islands in China. “Our treaty commitment to Japan’s security is absolute, and Article 5 (of the Japan-US Security Treaty) covers all territories under Japan’s administration, including the Senkaku Islands,” Obama declared at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Abe after their summit meeting on Thursday. For Obama, this bold statement served two objectives: first, to dispel the image of weakness associated with his diplomacy, and second, to dispel any misunderstanding about Washington’s commitment to Japan’s security. Obama said the US position on the disputed islands has been consistent, as Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel had previously conveyed a similar message to Japan. But coming directly from the president, the remark has a far more significant impact.
Obama’s tour of the region should help to reduce tensions in the region. Some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations are involved in maritime rows with China over the South China Sea, which is destroying peace which is vital for economic progress. Philippines also has serious territorial disputes with China, and Manila too is depending on Washington for its security as Beijing is too powerful. Obama’s open support for Tokyo is also apparently meant as a message to some members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations which have problems with China. The United States intends to intervene if Beijing invades disputed islets or takes similar actions.
What the region needs is peace, not confrontation. Beijing, as the superpower in the region, has a responsibility to refrain from actions that will create tension. Its neighbours have been forced to turn to US as they feel insecure and also because some of China’s tactics have been interpreted as threatening. The chances of a military confrontation are very slim, but the atmosphere of tension is equally dangerous.
At Thursday’s press conference, Obama referred to a situation in which large countries, like the US or China or Russia, feel as if whenever they think it’s expedient they can take actions that disadvantage smaller countries. That’s both a truth and a message.