The United States has warned China that the Senkaku Islands were covered by the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty, although it continues to maintain its stance that it would not take sides in the territorial dispute between Japan and China.
Visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told Chinese National Defense Minister Liang Guanglie in Beijing that the security treaty obligating the United States to come to the defense of Japan would be applied to the Senkakus, which are called the Diaoyu Islands in China.
A high-ranking U.S. government official in a position to know the details of the Sept. 18 meeting between Panetta and Liang confirmed to The Asahi Shimbun what the U.S. defense secretary said.
The source added that Liang expressed China’s strong opposition to having the security treaty applied to the Senkakus.
However, Panetta told Liang that there was no change in Washington’s long-held stance that it would fulfill its obligations under the security treaty.
Panetta and other U.S. officials have called on both Japan and China to resolve the diplomatic spat over the Senkakus in a peaceful manner, but Washington has also made clear to China what its stance was regarding the security treaty and the Senkakus.
Panetta’s remark reinforces the stance of the United States that it considers the Senkakus under the scope of the security pact, because it is under the effective control of Japan.
Panetta’s comment apparently was an attempt to directly inform Chinese officials that Washington was not changing its position on national security in East Asia and to ensure that Beijing did not take any drastic action over the Senkakus.
In his Sept. 17 meeting with Defense Minister Satoshi Morimoto, Panetta also confirmed that the security treaty would apply to the Senkakus. In a news conference after that meeting, Panetta said that the United States would fulfill its obligations under that treaty.
However, Panetta stopped short of clearly stating whether the United States had informed China about that position.
Although Washington has clarified its position regarding the security treaty, it has also maintained the stance that it would not take sides in the territorial dispute over the Senkakus.
Washington has also not publicly stated that Panetta made the security treaty remark in his talks with Liang. That reflects the delicate balance that the United States has to maintain between its alliance with Japan and its increasing emphasis on improving ties with China, especially in the economic sphere.
The United States also wanted to avoid having the focus fall on the application of the security treaty to the Senkakus because that could send the wrong message that the United States was prepared to resolve the Senkakus issue through military means. Such a misunderstanding could lead to a worsening of relations between Washington and Beijing.
CHINA DOWNPLAYS U.S. WARNING
Meanwhile, China was doing its best to downplay any possible negative effects from the Panetta remark.
The People’s Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, ran a commentary in its Sept. 20 edition that said, “The U.S.-Japan Security Treaty is a byproduct of the Cold War era and should not damage the interests of third parties, including China.”
The piece went on to say, “Any nation that seeks to interfere in the Diaoyu Islands issue will experience a loss of their interests.”
There are some Chinese officials who feel the United States was behind the nationalization of the Senkakus by Japan.
One Chinese government source said, “As long as we contain the actions of the United States, Japan will stop its provocative actions.”
In his Sept. 19 meeting with Panetta, Vice President Xi Jinping said, “We hope (the United States) does not interfere in the territorial dispute over the Diaoyu Islands.”
Xi is expected to be named general secretary of the Communist Party in the near future.
Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China in Beijing, said, “Observing the unprecedented hard-line stance taken by China’s leaders, the United States has also likely realized that it cannot easily become involved in the issue.”
The emphasis in the Chinese media about Panetta’s comment that the United States would not take sides in the territorial dispute over the Senkakus is a reflection that Beijing considers that a successful outcome of the visit by the U.S. defense secretary.
A Chinese military source said about the security treaty remark by Panetta: “That was only lip service toward Japan as an ally and (the United States) would never seriously interfere.”