BEIJING — China is voicing strong opposition to President Obama's statement that disputed islands in the East China Sea fall under a mutual security treaty between Washington and Tokyo. Ahead of his arrival in Japan for security and economic talks, the president told a Japanese newspaper that Washington would come to Tokyo's defense if there is ever a conflict over the islands in the East China Sea, which China also claims as its own.
It was expected that territorial disputes between China and its neighbors would come up during U.S. President Barack Obama's trip to Asia, particularly during his first stop in Japan. But the blunt words began even before Obama's plane touched down in Tokyo.
A major Japanese newspaper Wednesday published its transcript of an interview with the president where he gave what some analysts say is the clearest statement to date on the U.S. position regarding the disputed islands.
The islands, known as the Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, have long been administered by Japan and claimed by China.
Obama told the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper that islands fall under the U.S.- Japan Mutual Cooperation and Security Treaty and Washington opposes any “unilateral attempts to undermine Japan's administration of the islands.”
Commenting on the interview Wednesday, China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang took particular aim at the U.S.- Japan security treaty, calling it a bilateral agreement formed during the Cold War.
Qin said China is “firmly opposed to putting the islands under the U.S. Japan treaty.” Adding that the “U.S. should respect the facts and take a responsible attitude, be discreet in word and deed and play a constructive role in regional peace.”
The United States transferred administration of the islands to Japan in 1972, and Tokyo and Beijing have been locked in a dispute over them for years. In 2012, when the Japanese government purchased the previously privately owned and uninhabited islands, tensions began to rise even more.
The U.S. has repeatedly said that it does not take sides in such regional territorial disputes. In his interview, Obama has called for diplomacy and engagement, instead of intimidation and coercion to resolve maritime disputes. The fight over the islands has become increasingly bitter ever since Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stepped into office and Beijing frequently puts all of the blame on Tokyo.
China argues that the islands are part of its historic territory. Late last year, it abruptly and unilaterally announced the establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone that includes the islands.
Initial reaction to Obama's remarks was mixed.
Tomohiko Taniguchi, a professor at Keio University and special advisor to the Cabinet of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Obama's statement was historically significant. "It is the most reassuring statement that the nation has ever heard from the top leader of the biggest economy, the biggest military power in the world, so nothing could be more reassuring," he said.
In China, few saw the declaration as a shift in the overall U.S. position.
Wang Dong, a political scientist at Peking University says other U.S. officials have previously said the islands fall under this defense treaty, so the president’s remarks are not a shift in policy.
He said the remarks are unlikely to have any significant impact on the dispute and seemed more intended at reassuring U.S. allies in the region. “I don't see this as something that is sort of a big surprise or a 180 degree shift in the U.S. position,” said Wang.
Chinese state media, however, warned that the remark runs the risk of violating Washington's often-stated position that it does not take sides in the dispute. One article by the China News Service said the U.S. should do more to promote peace and stability in the region, instead of sending contradictory and false signals.
VOA Correspondent Steve Herman also contributed to this report.