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International relations

Pentagon corrects statement on Senkakus: 'No change in policy'

Spokesman's words on Japanese sovereignty had been read as a shift in position

U.S. Department of Defense press secretary John Kirby speaks in a media briefing at the Pentagon on Feb. 17. The former Navy rear admiral had sent ripple waves through Asia when he said Feb. 23 that Washington supports Japanese "sovereignty" over the Senkaku Islands.   © AP

NEW YORK -- When Pentagon press secretary John Kirby used the word "sovereignty" on Tuesday in response to a question on the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which China claims and calls the Diaoyu, foreign policy and defense analysts in Tokyo responded with surprise and excitement.

While the U.S. has repeatedly made clear that land administered by Japan, including the Senkakus, falls under the bilateral security treaty and thus is subject to protection by American forces, Washington has traditionally not taken a stance on the question of territorial sovereignty over the Senkakus.

If the Senkakus were no longer administered by Japan, for example, then the islands would be thrust into in a treaty gray area. Both the Japanese and Chinese sides hang on every word on this topic from an American administration, especially a new one.

Kirby had said in Tuesday's off-camera briefing that "we hold with the international community about the Senkakus and the sovereignty of the Senkakus and we support Japan obviously in that sovereignty."

But in an on-camera briefing Friday, Kirby apologetically walked the statement back.

"I need to correct something that I said during the Tuesday press gaggle," Kirby said in his opening statement. "There is no change to U.S. policy regarding sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands."

He added: "As President Biden underscored in his call with Prime Minister [Yoshihide] Suga, Secretary [of State Antony] Blinken reaffirmed in his call with Foreign Minister [Toshimitsu] Motegi, and Secretary [of Defense Lloyd] Austin further reaffirmed in his call with Defense Minister [Nobuo] Kishi, the United States is unwavering in its commitment to the defense of Japan under Article 5 of our security treaty, which includes the Senkaku Islands. The United States opposes any unilateral action that seeks to change the status quo."

U.S. President Joe Biden, near pillar, walks with national security adviser Jake Sullivan at the White House. Biden and key administration officials have reaffirmed to their Japanese counterparts that the bilateral security treaty covers the Senkaku Islands. (Photo courtesy of the White House)

The retired Navy rear admiral and former State Department spokesman expressed regret for the error, said "that was on me" and apologized.

Jeffrey Hornung, a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan, California-based Rand Corp. think tank, said Kirby's earlier comment appeared to be "an unintended mistake," given that a clarification was quickly issued.

"With the exception of the Northern Territories, the U.S. does not take sovereignty positions on any of the region's territorial disputes; that is why Kirby's statement was likely viewed with such excitement by many Japanese media outlets," he said. "If true, it would have represented a significant change in U.S. policy."

Hornung said it was important for the Pentagon to correct the statement swiftly.

"While it is plausible that China could try to leverage the misstatement toward nefarious ends, the U.S. does not accept any unilateral attempts to change the status quo," he said. "It was more important for Japan, as a close U.S. ally, to understand that U.S. policy had not changed so as to avoid unnecessary misunderstandings in the alliance."

"While there is a tendency in Japan to view Democratic administrations as not as pro-alliance as Republican ones, the Biden administration -- like other Democratic administrations -- are strong supporters of the U.S.-Japan alliance," Hornung said.

"U.S. policy to Japan has been remarkably bipartisan for the entire post-WWII era," he said. "The Biden administration has thus far not shown any change in this pattern."

After Kirby made his comments Tuesday, Keio University professor Toshihiro Nakayama tweeted that the spokesperson had already responded to a question on the Senkakus and had returned to the topic on his own to elaborate. This was where Kirby had mentioned sovereignty.

"The fact that he came back to the question again and answered suggests that this was a more closely examined expression," wrote Nakayama, an expert on American politics. "There's no way to tell, because this was an off-camera briefing, but he may have been handed a memo."

Retweeting the post, fellow Keio scholar Yuichi Hosoya wrote: "This is big. The Biden administration is moving to strengthen the alliance ... even more than expected."

Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. security pact begins: "Each party recognizes that an armed attack against either party in the territories under the administration of Japan would be dangerous to its own peace and safety and declares that it would act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional provisions and processes."

This is widely interpreted to mean that the U.S. side would treat any attack on the Senkakus as equivalent to an attack on American soil.

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