President Obama pulled off the diplomatic equivalent of a double backflip in Tokyo yesterday. He promised to defend Japan, including all of its territory, i.e., the disputed Senkaku Islands. He also managed to dodge questions on just who owns those islands, thereby avoiding a confrontation with Beijing. Not too shabby, as Mark Landler reports for the New York Times:
The president’s carefully calibrated statement, delivered alongside Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, captured a delicate balancing act: He sought to reassure Japan that the United States would back it at a tense moment but tried to avoid the perception of containing China. […]“Historically, they have been administered by Japan, and we do not believe that they should be subject to change unilaterally,” Mr. Obama said. “What is a consistent part of the alliance is that the treaty covers all territories administered by Japan.”
Though China’s government quickly condemned the statement, saying Beijing was “firmly opposed,” later statements in state-run newspapers were more blasé. “This is a standard U.S. policy, a political cliche,” the People’s Daily yawned, “As Obama explained: ‘This is not a new position.'” An op-ed in the Global Times argued that “the U.S. depends much more on China than these allies,” and added that China “is committed to utilizing its power in a peaceful and restrained manner.”In the end, the op-ed continues, no one—not China’s rivals in Asia, not even the US—can contain China, and it would be pointless to try. Indeed, it claims, “Obama’s rebalance toward Asia is a rearrangement of the US presence in this area to maximize its interests. But the US is not powerful or ambitious enough to contain China in this area, or even strangle China before it rises to be a global power.”President Obama and Prime Minister Abe did not succeed in completing a vital trade agreement, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, however. Despite round-the-clock talks before Obama’s trip to Japan, negotiators from the two countries failed to settle important differences.Obama will travel to Malaysia and the Philippines after he leaves Japan. In the Philippines, he is expected to issue a condemnation of Chinese attempts to take over Philippines-controlled islands in the South China Sea. Beijing has been even bolder in that dispute than it has been in its standoff with Japan in the East China Sea. The Chinese coast guard has circled ever closer to a small Filipino marine garrison on the remote Second Thomas Shoal. We’ll see if President Obama can maintain his balance on his long and difficult tightrope walk through Asia’s thorniest disputes.