US President Donald Trump has assured Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe that Washington remains committed to defending the eastern Asian ally against aggression from China and North Korea.
In a joint press conference with Abe after meeting him at the White House on Friday, Trump dropped his harsh campaign rhetoric against Japan and embraced the long-running defense agreement with Tokyo.
“We’re committed to the security of Japan,” he said. “The bond between our two nations and the friendship between our two peoples runs very, very deep. This administration is committed to bringing those ties even closer.”
Trump reassured Abe that the defense pact included the disputed Senkaku islands, over which both Japan and China have claimed sovereignty.
The pair said in a statement that “They oppose any unilateral action that seeks to undermine Japan’s administration of these islands.”
Under the US-Japan security treaty, Washington is obligated to defend all areas under Japanese administrative control, hence making Senkaku, which China calls Diaoyu, a bone of contention.
Trump’s remarks are likely to rile Beijing, which has already reacted firmly to similar remarks by US Defense Secretary James Mattis.
During a two-day official tour of Japan earlier this month, Mattis insisted that Washington would continue to recognize “Japanese administration of the islands.”
China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said in response the US needed to “stop making wrong remarks” since China had owned the islands since ancient times.
“The Diaoyu Island and its adjacent islets have been an inherent part of Chinese territory since ancient times, which is an unchangeable historical fact,” state news agency Xinhua quoted Lu as saying.
“We urge the US side to take a responsible attitude, stop making wrong remarks… and avoid making the issue more complicated and bringing instability to the regional situation,” he added.
The US maintains 47,000 military service members in Japan, mostly on the southern island of Okinawa, where Mattis served as a young marine officer in the early 1970s.
Throughout the campaign, Trump repeatedly criticized Washington’s commitment to the deal.
During the presser, Trump also implied that the security pact with Japan involved threats coming from North Korea.
“We will work together to promote our shared interests, of which we have many, in the region, including freedom from navigation and defending against the North Korean missile and nuclear threat, both of which I consider a very, very high priority,” Trump said.
Pyongyang has been developing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons to protect itself from the US military.