Biden Commits to Defense of Japan-Held Isles Claimed by China

President Joe Biden reaffirmed the U.S.’s commitment to defend uninhabited islands controlled by its ally Japan and claimed by China that have been a persistent point of contention between the Asian powerhouses.

Biden’s pledge, made in his first call since taking office with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, poses the risk of the U.S. becoming embroiled in any potential conflict between the Asian neighbors. The two leaders spoke in the early hours of Thursday Japan time, according to a statement issued by Foreign Ministry.

“President Biden expressed his unwavering commitment to the defense of Japan, including the application of Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty to the Senkaku islands,” the ministry said. Biden also expressed commitment to “extended deterrence,” both governments said in separate statements, a term that refers to the potential use of nuclear weapons to defend an ally.

Vessels from Japan and China often come into close contact around the East China Sea islands — called the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyus in China — raising concerns of a bigger confrontation. China this month passed a law allowing its coastguard vessels to fire on foreign ships, in a development that could ratchet up tensions.

The White House said in its statement that Biden and Suga discussed “the United States’ unwavering commitment to the defense of Japan,” specifying that this covers the Senkaku islands.

For more on Japan and defense:
  • How a Few Tiny Islands Put Japan and China in Dispute: QuickTake
  • Japan Cabinet Oks Record Defense Budget in Face of China Threats
  • Biden Reassures Japan, South Korea Over Alliance Commitment
  • Japan to Step Up Defenses From Chinese, North Korean Threats

Japan, whose pacifist constitution limits the activities of its military, seeks regular assurances from the U.S. — its only defense ally. New Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have made similar comments on island defense in talks with their Japanese counterparts in recent days.

Tensions around the islands escalated after Japan bought part of the chain from a private landlord in 2012, turning its ties with China their most hostile in decades.

Biden and Suga also agreed to work together for a free and open Indo-Pacific, as well as for the denuclearization of North Korea, the ministry said in the statement. Suga later told parliament Biden had invited him to an April climate summit, and he was willing to attend if circumstances permit.

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