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The US-Japan Security Treaty and the East China Sea

Published Thursday, May 1, 2014

During a three day visit to Tokyo in late April 2014, US President Barack Obama confirmed that the islands in the East China Sea known as Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China are covered by 1960 US-Japan Security Treaty, under which the US has pledged to come to Japan’s defence if its territory is attacked. Some observers have argued that Obama’s statements mark the first time a US president has clearly taken Japan’s side over islands. However, President Obama stressed that this was "not a new position". His remarks come at a time of growing Japanese nervousness about the state of its longstanding alliance with the US.

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During a three day visit to Tokyo on 23-25 April 2014, US President Barack Obama confirmed that the islands known as Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China are covered by 1960 US-Japan Security Treaty, under which the US has pledged to come to Japan’s defence if its territory is attacked. President Obama also stressed that this was “not a new position”, adding that “it would be a profound mistake to continue to see escalation around this issue instead of dialogue.” Some observers have argued that Obama’s statements mark the first time a US president has clearly taken Japan’s side over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. They do so on the grounds that no president has explicitly said until now that the islands are indeed covered by the 1960 treaty (although other senior officials have done so).

Obama’s remarks come at a time of growing Japanese nervousness about the state of its longstanding alliance with the US. The degree to which the president’s statements have reassured the Japanese Government remains to be seen. The US does not take a position on the sovereignty of the islands and Obama’s willingness to accept that there is an ‘issue’ on which there should be ‘dialogue’, means that the American stance is still likely to be viewed by some as falling short of the unconditional support that Japan desires. The Japanese Government does not accept that there is a dispute to be discussed with China. The UK Government takes the same position on sovereignty as its US counterpart.

Over recent months, China has been continuing to strongly press its claim to sovereignty over the islands. In November 2013 the Chinese Government announced the creation of an ‘Air Defence Identification Zone’ in the East China Sea, under which all non-commercial air traffic is expected to submit flight plans before entering the zone.

Commons Briefing papers SN06873

Author: Jon Lunn

Topics: Asia, Defence equipment and procurement, International politics and government

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