Barack Obama: Negotiating Asia’s troubled waters

US President Barack Obama shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Photo: Reuters\Junko Kimur

President Barack Obama’s tour of Asia was supposed to start today by striking a delicate balance; be good to his friend Japan, and keep China onside.

But on Day One, and at Press Conference Number One, he has already riled the Chinese.

US President Barack Obama gestures during a news conference with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Credit: Reuters

Side by side, next to Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan he offered America’s allies a verbal security blanket, saying that the US is obligated under a defence treaty to protect Japan in its dispute over a group of islands in the East China Sea.

Tokyo says they’re theirs. Beijing claims they belong to them. Japan calls them the Senkakus, China terms them the Diaoyu Islands, and Barack Obama opted for the title Senkaku Islands, infront of the world’s media, making it clear who the US thinks administers them.

He was unambiguous. If China does try to take these islands by force then America will help Japan.

He did, however, stop short of siding entirely with Japan. He tried to tone down the rhetoric, and urge both sides to avoid provocation, to “resolve these issues peacefully,” but he also warned China not to be disruptive in the region and said that “all countries - large or small - must abide by international laws.”

This is an issue that is centuries’ old, with China claiming the islands as their own. But in 1971, Washington gave Japan administrative rights to them. Then, in 2012, Tokyo tried to nationalise them, pushing China to react. They then increased their military presence in the waters. Now, so too has Japan and the US.

A 2013 photo of activists tear Japan's rising sun flag during an anti-Japan protest in China Credit: Reuters

Every move President Obama makes and every word he utters on this trip will be analyzed by the Chinese and immediately this afternoon in Beijing there were repercussions at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs. Spokesman Qin Gang said,

China's position over the Diaoyu islands is clear, firm and consistent…..we would like to put particular emphasis on the fact that the so-called US-Japan security treaty is a product of the cold war and should not be targeted at a third party or harm China's territorial sovereignty. No matter what other people say and do, they can't change the fundamental fact that the Diaoyu islands are part of China's inherent territory. Nor can they shake the Chinese government and people's determination and resolve to defend our territorial sovereignty.

Only too aware of what Obama’s words could do is Dr Ruan Zongze, the Vice President of China’s Institute of International Studies. He told me, “if you put China in a very awkward position then China must fight back and respond very forcefully. America’s involvement or any other country’s involvement can only make it more complex and make it even more difficult to solve and address [the situation]."

A group of disputed islands, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Credit: Reuters\Kyodo

He went on to say that many Chinese are of the opinion that America is trying to contain China, and in Washington, he believes they think China is trying to push the US out of this region. Both are misconceptions, he says. The only way to move forward is to "establish trust and to talk to one another openly," although he admits that is nearly impossible, “even among friends."

I asked him if a rising power can ever avoid confrontation with an established power. His response was, "It takes two to tango but we all want a win win situation."