During a joint press conference in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Obama said treaty obligations to defend Japan would apply if hostilities broke out between Japan and China over the disputed islands known in Japan as the Senkaku and as the Diaoyu in China.
"Let me reiterate that our treaty commitment to Japan's security is absolute, and Article 5 covers all territories under Japan's administration, including the Senkaku islands," said Obama, while making clear that the United States does not take sides in the dispute.
"We share a commitment to fundamental principles such as freedom of navigation and respect for international law," he added.
Obama told reporters the status of the islands should be resolved through negotiation, a message he said he has delivered directly to China.
"Historically, they have been administered by Japan and we do not believe that they should be subject to change unilaterally," Obama said, adding that he told Abe directly that it would be a "profound mistake" if the situation escalates.
Tensions have been growing between China and Japan over the remote, uninhabited islands located northeast of Taiwan, the fate of which has aroused passions in both countries. Last year, China unilaterally imposed an air defense identification zone over the islands, threatening to take military action against any aircraft that failed to identify itself or cooperate, while also stepping up sea patrols.
The disputed islands were just one of several regional security issues discussed by Obama and Abe at their meeting today. On North Korea, Obama said the United States and Japan are determined to stand firm in the face of provocations by Pyongyang. North Korea has conducted three underground nuclear tests since 2006 as well as multiple tests of short- and long-range missiles. Despite the North being subject to more international sanctions than any other country in the world, Obama said he was not hopeful Pyongyang would change its behavior any time soon.
"But what I am confident about is that working with Japan, working with the Republic of Korea and working with China and other interested parties in the region," Obama said, "that we can continue to apply more and more pressure on North Korea so that at some juncture they end up taking a different course."
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