April 26, 2014 6:14 am JST

Japan, US find new footing in shared stance on China

HIROYUKI AKITA, Nikkei senior staff writer

TOKYO -- A certain sense of urgency is palpable in Friday's joint statement by Japan and the U.S. Now is the time to unite and call on China to act responsibly, the allies seem to be saying.

     The two allies may have come closer to being on the same strategic page vis-a-vis China following President Barack Obama's meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe here this week. But concrete action will put proof to their words.

     Even among the many joint statements issued over the years, this document presents itself as of particular value. For the first time, the U.S. stipulates that its security pact with Japan covers the Senkaku Islands, to which China also lays claim as the Diaoyu, obligating Washington to defend them.

     Obama had already promised as much at a news conference this week. But now, as part of an irrevocable official document, the commitment carries a different weight.

     "With this, U.S. involvement in the defense of the Senkakus will continue even under a new administration," a Japanese official remarks.

     While avoiding explicit mention of China, the U.S. criticizes Beijing in the statement for declaring an air defense identification zone over the East China Sea. The U.S. also objects to attempts by the Chinese to expand their maritime interests by force.

     The Obama administration took a more conciliatory tack in its China diplomacy for a time after Hillary Clinton stepped down as secretary of state last spring. Vice President Joe Biden and cabinet officials even expressed sympathy toward Beijing's calls for "new type of great-power relationship" on an equal footing with Washington, much to the discomfit of Japan and Southeast Asian nations.

     But the ADIZ provoked heated debate over China policy within the Obama administration. This resulted in the White House, State Department, and Department of Defense all lining up to back a harder line, according to a U.S. official.

     Such developments help explain Obama's firmer stance on display at the news conference and in the statement. But even the grandest of pronouncements is just a piece of paper in the absence of concrete action.

     To bring China into a U.S.- and Japan-led order, it is undeniably important for the allies to first conclude the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade pact.

     And the joint statement mentions a number of tasks at hand, including revising guidelines for bilateral defense cooperation and relocating the Futenma military base in Okinawa. Of particular note is a new direction: providing collaborative assistance to Southeast Asian nations to help them strengthen their security.

     The Asia-Pacific of the future turns on which sphere of influence the ever-growing countries of Southeast Asia choose to join: Chinese or American. Envisioning a U.S.- and Japan-led order, the allies are now working to strengthen defense ties with Southeast Asian nations alongside economic ones.

     Needless to say, it is not the Obama administration's intent to strike an entirely antagonistic posture toward China. Besides the countries' economic interdependence, Washington needs the cooperation of Beijing in addressing the North Korean threat and other issues. The statement declares an interest in "building a productive and constructive relationship with China."

     The U.S. aims for balance in its relationships with East Asian powers. With this in mind, it would behoove Abe to work toward deeper involvement with China as well.

     "China may look like it means all tough business, but signs are starting to show it's trying to ratchet down confrontation with Japan," says a source versed in Sino-Japanese relations.

     This week may have seen the makings of a fresh Japan-U.S. strategy toward China, but the crucial test lies ahead.