Japan vows restraint over island disputes; US stresses commitment to defend Japan

Tokyo govt will respond 'calmly', foreign minister assures Washington

Japan will respond "calmly and with resolve" to Chinese assertiveness over the disputed islands in the East China Sea, said Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, as Washington re-emphasised its commitment to defending Japan.

The growing tension between China and Japan as well as South Korea and Japan over territorial disputes and Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe's December visit to the Yasukuni shrine that honours World War II criminals has been a source of much concern in the United States in recent months, and the visiting Japanese minister sought to reassure his hosts that Japan will behave with restraint.

Speaking at a joint press statement with US Secretary of State John Kerry after a closed-door meeting on Friday, he said: "Concerning the relationship between Japan and China, there is no change in the major direction... for a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests. However, with regard to China's attempt to change the status quo by coercion or intimidation in Senkaku islands and South China Sea, we agreed that we will respond calmly and with resolve."

He was referring to Japan's overlapping claims with China for the Senkakus, known to the Chinese as Diaoyu, and China's growing assertiveness in the South China Sea, where Beijing has conflicting claims with some Asean states.

Mr Kishida also stressed that despite the recent souring of ties between Japan and South Korea, the long-term relationship is none the worse for wear.

"There are difficult issues in the relationship between Japan and the Republic of Korea, but (the) Republic of Korea is an important neighbour for Japan, so going forward we will make tenacious efforts in order to build our cooperative relationship... from a broad perspective."

He also noted that the ties between South Korea and Japan were important for dealing with the North Korean nuclear threat.

If there were any cracks in the US-Japan relationship after Mr Abe's shrine visit or US Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy's undiplomatic tweet on the treatment of dolphins there, it was not evident in the ministers' statements.

There was no mention of either issue as both men focused on the areas where US-Japan interests are aligned.

Mr Kerry also made clear that the US commitment to its defence treaty with Japan was unwavering.

"The United States remains as committed as ever to upholding our treaty obligations with our Japanese allies," he said, describing the US-Japan relationship as the cornerstone of President Barack Obama's Asia rebalance.

Away from security issues, both men highlighted the successful completion of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement talks as a top priority.

Said Mr Kerry: "Both Fumio (Kishida) and I agreed today that finalising the TPP is one of the most important things that we can do for our countries' economic futures... Once we do it, that agreement will mean more jobs, more growth, greater stability and greater security not just for the United States and Japan but throughout the Asia-Pacific region."

He added: "I believe this could be really a transformative year, certainly a transformative period, for the US-Japan global partnership. And I am looking forward to continuing to work on our shared goals and vision."

Mr Kerry also said he planned to travel to China and other Asian countries next week.

Mr Obama is tipped to stop in Japan on a planned visit to Asia in April and Mr Kishida effectively confirmed it, saying the President is invited as a state guest.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg