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Obama: U.S. To Defend Japan In Territorial Disputes With China


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm David Greene. Good morning. President Obama is on the first leg of a four-country trip to Asia and today he reassured Japan that the U.S. will defend it in territorial disputes with China. China is not on the president's itinerary this time, but that country looms large over the trip all the same. NPR's Anthony Kuhn joins us from Seoul, which is the president's next stop. Anthony, good morning.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: And Anthony, if you could just start by reminding us about these disputes between China and Japan and exactly what President Obama had to say.

KUHN: OK, David. The dispute that's raising tensions in the region is over the Senkaku Islands, as they're called in Japanese, or the Diaoyu in Chinese. And these islands are in the East China Sea, and when the U.S. concluded a defense treaty with Japan in the 1950s, these things were still held in trusteeship by the U.S. They gave them back to Japan in the early 1970s.

So what the president is saying, that the U.S.-Japan defense treaty applies to this island, sort of updates the commitment. The president did say that the U.S. does not take a position on the sovereignty of this rock or that island and in saying they're rocks, you know, he's not exaggerating. These are uninhabited islands and the U.S. does not want to get dragged into what is Japan and China's conflict.

But he needed to reassure Japan. Let's hear exactly what he said about the islands and the defense commitment.


GREENE: So sort of an important reminder there from President Obama about that treaty. You know, Anthony, just looking at the itinerary of the president's trip he's sort of skirting around China, going to talk to U.S. allies on the Chinese periphery. Some are calling this a containment tour, sort of sending a message to China about any territorial ambitions that the U.S. has countries there that it works with. And is that sort of the theme here?

KUHN: The Obama administration has denied from the very start that containing China is even possible, given its integration into the world economy. China has never believed this rhetoric from the Obama administration and they're also critics of the U.S. and other countries and feel that it is very much aimed at China. And specifically Obama's remarks today which were essentially repeating what he said to domestic press yesterday, were criticized by China.

China says the U.S. claims to be neutral in this dispute over the island but it's not being neutral by saying it's going to defend them. And a state media editorial in China today suggests that this island issue and the U.S. position is a liability for the U.S. and that can get the U.S. entangled in Asian disputes.

GREENE: Now, Anthony, in addition to talking about China, the U.S. and Japan were supposed to working out a trade deal during this trip.

KUHN: That's correct. It's the Transpacific Partnership Agreement that involves 12 countries on the Pacific Rim and the U.S. and Japan were hoping to hammer out an agreement on this but they haven't reached it yet. There are still issues over access to Japanese markets. For U.S. agricultural products and for automobiles, the Japanese government is still protecting those markets.

The president has argued that Prime Minister Abe has tried to make this part of an effort to jolt Japan's economy out of the doldrums and that they need to sign this.

GREENE: And Anthony, you mentioned earlier the word pivot, an important word because the Obama administration has been talking about pivoting its attention to Asia, something that the allies have enjoyed hearing. But are they optimistic that that's actually taking place here?

KUHN: Well, everybody in this part of the world knows that there are distractions for the U.S., including in the Middle East, and there are also great fiscal constraints on the U.S. upping its game militarily and diplomatically here. At the same time, a lot of countries in both northeast and southeast Asia are ambivalent in the sense that China is their biggest trading partner. It's the biggest trading partner of almost everyone in the region and they don't want to see a U.S.-China conflict.

And they don't want to have to choose between U.S., which is their military protector in a lot of cases, and China, which is their major trade partner. So there are mixed feelings about it.

GREENE: OK. NPR's Anthony Kuhn who is covering President Obama's trip to Asia. Thanks very much, Anthony.

KUHN: You're welcome, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
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