On the eve of the trip, Obama explicitly stated that the US-Japan security alliance covers the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands because Japan “administers” the small and barren rocky islands.
In response, China has issued its standard warning that the US should not take sides.
Note that Obama specifically highlighted Japan’s “administration” of the islands which is clearly backed up in treaties from the last 125 years. The US President did not use any language to identify historical ownership or exclude discussion of the competing claims of ownership. Instead, Obama warned against unilateral changes to the current Status Quo.
In short, Obama warned China to not see the East China Sea as a potential Crimea situation while supporting dialogue.
This language tight rope will largely go unnoticed in the war of words that is a near constant tension builder in the region, but does in theory keep the US options open in supporting or engaging in diplomatic efforts to resolve the competing claims.
This won’t matter to China, whose rhetoric over territorial disputes that from the Yellow Sea to the East China Sea to the South China Sea as well is continuing to get stronger.
Another example of the symbolic war in East Asia is competing controversial shrine visits.
Japan’s Prime Minister has avoided going to a shrine that commemorates WWII dead-includng war criminals. Though he has sent an offering and allowed other members of his cabinet to go.
The Yasukini Shrine is the gift that keeps on giving in China-Japan-South Korea tensions.
The Japanese shrine now has symbolic competition.
Chinese state news agency Xinhua says over 50,000 people have visited a memorial in Harbin commemorating a Korean assassin who killed a Japanese official during their occupation of the Korean Peninsula.
And as a reminder to the world that the war of words between nation states is not the only regional problem: pirates have seized an oil tanker in the trade crucial Malacca Strait.
All in all, it should be a rather calm visit for the US President to the “peaceful” East Asian region….