President Obama pledged Thursday that the U.S. would come to Japan’s defense if China further threatens a disputed chain of islands, but said he isn’t drawing another “red line” on possible military action.
At a press conference in Tokyo, Mr. Obama said the U.S. is bound by the terms of a 1952 treaty with Japan to come to its defense if the territory is threatened.
“The treaty between the United States and Japan preceded my birth, so this isn’t a red line that I’m drawing,” Mr. Obama said. “Our position is not new. We do not believe [the islands] should be subject to change unilaterally. The treaty covers all territories administered by Japan.”
China has raised tensions in the region by asserting a claim over the uninhabited territory, known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands.
After a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the start of his weeklong tour of Asia, Mr. Obama said the boundary dispute with China must be resolved peacefully.
“We have strong relations with China,” Mr. Obama said. “We want to continue to encourage the peaceful rise of China. But we have also emphasized … all of us have responsibilities to maintain basic rules of the road and international order. My hope is that China will continue to engage with us.”
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With the crisis in Ukraine threatening to overshadow his trip, Mr. Obama said he is still preparing to impose broader economic sanctions on Russia if President Vladimir Putin does not withdraw troops and discourage militants from taking over portions of eastern Ukraine.
“There’s always the possibility that Russia … reverses course,” Mr. Obama said. “So far, the evidence doesn’t make me hopeful.”
On North Korea, Mr. Obama said reports that Pyongyang is preparing for another nuclear weapons test shows the regime is “very dangerous.”
“We have to make sure we guard against any provocations getting out of hand,” Mr. Obama said.
The president said he’s still hopeful of reaching agreement with Japan on a far-reaching trade pact known as the Trans Pacific Partnership, although a final deal isn’t likely to be signed on this trip.
Mr. Abe said Mr. Obama’s visit was a testament to the president’s “rebalancing” policy towards Asia.
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“This greatly contributes to regional peace and prosperity,” Mr. Abe said.
Mr. Obama also met with Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko at the Imperial Palace. The president told them that he didn’t have any gray hairs when they last met in November 2009.
“You have a very hard job,” the emperor said.
Four years ago, Mr. Obama was criticized in America for bowing deeply to the emperor. On Thursday morning, the president bowed more casually.
As Mr. Obama began a weeklong tour of Asia Wednesday, anti-U.S. protesters in the Philippines clashed with police over the president’s scheduled visit and a pact that will beef up U.S. military forces there.
Riot policemen wielding truncheons and shields sprayed protesters with water from a fire truck to push them away from the heavily fortified U.S. embassy compound in Manila. A police officer was punched in the face in the melee but no arrests were made.
Some of the protesters carried paper U.S. flags with the message: “Obama, not welcome.”
Mr. Obama, who arrived in Japan Wednesday at the start of the four-nation trip, will travel to Manila on Monday after stops in South Korea and Malaysia. He is expected to reassure allied nations enmeshed in long-running territorial disputes with an increasingly assertive China.
Upon his arrival in Japan, Mr. Obama had dinner with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at an exclusive sushi restaurant. He is scheduled to hold formal talks with Mr. Abe on Thursday.
Ahead of his arrival in Tokyo, Mr. Obama sought to reassure Japan that its security pact with the U.S. does apply to the islands at the center of a territorial dispute with Beijing.
“The policy of the United States is clear,” the president said in a written response to questions published in Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper before his arrival in Tokyo.
Mr. Obama said he opposes “unilateral attempts to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands” and said the disputes need to be resolved “through dialogue and diplomacy, not intimidation and coercion.”
The U.S. and the Philippines, which are treaty allies, have been scrambling to overcome differences to finalize a new security accord in time for Mr. Obama’s visit and meeting with Philippine President Benigno Aquino III.
The accord will allow more U.S. troops, aircraft and ships to be temporarily stationed in selected Philippine military camps as a counterweight to China and as a standby disaster-response force. About 500 American soldiers have been based in the southern Philippines since 2002 to provide anti-terrorism training and intelligence to Filipino troops battling al Qaeda-linked militants.
Protesters opposed to the accord say the U.S. is seeking to exert its dominance over the Philippines.
“Obama’s visit is not a symbol of friendship, but signals the US plan to re-occupy the Philippines. He will meet with … Aquino to push for measures that would further tighten the US economic, military and all-around control over the country,” said Roger Soluta, Secretary General of Kilusang Mayo Uno, one of the groups present at the protest rally.
Another militant group, Bayan, said the U.S. has an imperialist agenda in Asia.
“The U.S. seeks to maintain its dominance in the region by violating the national sovereignty and plundering the economies of their so-called ‘allies’. The people of Asia stand to gain nothing from the Obama visit and the U.S. agenda he carries,” said Renato Reyes Jr., Bayan secretary general.
The group said it would be back on the streets on Monday and Tuesday during Mr. Obama’s state visit.
Philippine negotiators have stressed that the military agreement would comply with the Philippine constitution and would prohibit permanent presence of U.S. troops and weapons of mass destruction.
In spite of the protest in Manila, Filipinos overwhelmingly approve of their nation’s relationship with the U.S. More than four out of five Filipinos (85 percent) view Americans favorably, according to 2013 data from the Pew Research Center, a Washington-based think tank.
Pew said Mr. Obama scores even better among Filipinos than he does with the French. The center said 84 percent of Filipinos have confidence in the U.S. president, compared with 83 percent of French citizens.