President Obama told Chinese President Xi Jinping that the United States would back Japan in any armed conflict over the Senkaku islands that are the subject of a major Chinese-Japanese dispute.
A U.S. official said the president’s comments were intended to avoid a military miscalculation by Beijing, which in recent weeks has ratcheted up tensions with military incursions near the uninhabited islands that the Chinese call Diaoyu.
The private U.S. warning — made during the June 8 “walk in the desert” by the two leaders and their translators at their Palm Springs, Calif., summit — sought to clarify the mixed public statements in recent months by the Obama administration on the disputed islands, located south of Japan’s Okinawa and north of Taiwan.
Initially, administration and military officials stated that the United States was neutral in the maritime dispute.
But under pressure from Tokyo, that policy line shifted to reminding the Chinese that the United States and Japan are part of a mutual defense treaty that would require U.S. military forces to come to Tokyo’s aid in a military dust-up.
There have been serious concerns among U.S. military and intelligence officials that China is quietly preparing to take some type of military action against Japan over the islands.
The mixed message prior to the summit was highlighted in December by Adm. Samuel J. Locklear, the commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, who told reporters that “we don’t take sides on territorial disputes.” The comment appeared designed to avoid upsetting U.S. military exchanges with China.
The admiral has emerged as one of the more conciliatory military commanders at the Hawaii-based command. He was criticized this year for saying his biggest concern was climate change, not the Chinese military buildup that is alarming most of China’s neighbors.
During the summit with Mr. Xi, Mr. Obama said China should avoid increasing tensions and that the U.S. government opposes efforts by Beijing to intimidate Japan over the islands.
Mr. Xi responded that China was not escalating tensions.
The dispute began in September when the Japanese government purchased three of the five islands from the family that owned them.
Since then, Chinese naval and air forces have made numerous incursions and flights near the islands. More than 300 Chinese fighter jets have buzzed the area.
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