(AA) — President Barack Obama reassured his Japanese counterpart that Washington will continue to stand by its ally as China continues to pursue a more assertive policy in the Asia-Pacific.
Speaking during a joint press conference with Shinzo Abe at the White House, Obama said that during Monday’s Oval Office meeting, Japan and the U.S. updated their defense cooperation guidelines “for the first time in nearly two decades.”
“I want to reiterate that our treaty commitment to Japan’s security is absolute,” he added, stressing that the obligation extends to all Japanese territories, including the contested Senkaku Islands.
The island chain is one of several regional territorial disputes between China and its neighbors in the South and East China seas. While the Senkakus are controlled by Tokyo, China and Taiwan each claim the territory as their own.
Obama said that the maritime disputes are the result of conflicts in which China would “feel that rather than resolve these issues through normal international dispute settlements, they are flexing their muscles.”
“We’ve said to China what we would say to any country in that circumstance: That’s the wrong way to go about it,” he added.
Beijing has recently undertaken massive island creation projects in the South China Sea atop previously submerged reefs. Administration officials have warned that the newly formed islands could be used to station naval ships and establish a potential air defense zone like one that Beijing unilaterally declared in 2013 in the East China Sea, and which includes the Senkakus.
Obama welcomed the Japanese premier to the White House in a ceremony replete with pageantry, including a gun salute and a marching band costumed in American Revolutionary War attire.
The leaders stressed that progress has been made on a long sought after free trade pact, but stopped short of announcing any potential breakthroughs.
Abe said in remarks translated from Japanese that he is eager to see the “early conclusion” of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and said that it is not a threat to China.
“This is not something that we create out of consciousness about China,” he said. “ It should be a model for China in that it’s an ambitious attempt to create a new economic sphere in which people, goods and money will flow freely within the Asia-Pacific region.”
Obama acknowledged domestic pressures against such an accord that he and Abe face, but said a potential trade agreement “will end up being the most progressive trade bill in history.”
“And because I always believe that good policy ends up being good politics, I’m confident we’re going to end up getting the votes in Congress,” he said.
Obama will host Abe at the White House later Tuesday for a state dinner that’s expected to draw approximately 200 guests.
Abe will be the first Japanese prime minister to address a joint session of Congress when he does so Wednesday.