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Tillerson confirms U.S. pledge to defend Japan-controlled Senkakus

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson confirmed Tuesday that a
long-standing commitment by Washington to defend Japanese territory
applies to a group of small islands that China claims.

"It is encouraging that both foreign and defense authorities of
the United States clearly stated their uniform position (over the
Senkaku Islands) and I think we have made a good start including this
point," Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida told reporters
following his first phone conversation with Tillerson.

China, which calls the islands Diaoyu, registered its
displeasure with the U.S. top diplomat's reaffirmation of the
commitment.

"We have already urged the United States to take a responsible
attitude and stop making false statements on the sovereignty issue of
the Diaoyu Islands, so as to avoid further complicating the issue and
bringing unstable factors to the regional situation," Chinese Foreign
Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said at a press briefing in Beijing.

Lu reiterated China's position that it has "undisputable
sovereignty" over the islands.

The conversation between Kishida and Tillerson was held ahead of
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's meeting with U.S. President
Donald Trump, scheduled for Friday in Washington.

The Japanese and U.S. governments are making final arrangements
for Abe and Trump to also reconfirm the commitment, according to
officials with knowledge of preparations for the summit.

Tillerson said the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea
that are under Japanese administrative control fall within the
geographical scope of Article 5 of Washington's mutual security
treaty with Tokyo, according to Kishida, who is expected to accompany
Abe to the meeting.

The article of the treaty dating back to 1960 obligates the
United States to help protect territories under the administration of
Japan in the event of an armed attack.

In April 2014, when Trump's predecessor Barack Obama visited
Japan, he became the first U.S. president to say in public that the
islands are covered by the article.

Tillerson said the United States opposes any unilateral acts
that interfere with Japan's administration of the islands during the
conversation that lasted about 15 minutes, in which they also
discussed North Korea and other regional affairs, according to
Kishida.

The Chinese spokesman, however, called the security treaty a
"product of the Cold War" and went on to say that "Japan's repeated
attempts to rely on external support on this issue will end in vain."

The Senkaku Islands remain a major source of tension between
Japan and China, which have been locked in a tense game of cat and
mouse involving ships and aircraft around them, causing regional
worries that accidents or miscalculations could precipitate a wider
conflict.

Tillerson's remarks echo the views expressed by U.S. Defense
Secretary Jim Mattis during his visit last week to Japan.

While assuring Tokyo of Washington's upholding of the
commitment, Mattis criticized China's "increasingly confrontational"
actions in the East and South China seas.

Mattis said the actions have "shredded the trust of nations in
the region," when he spoke at a press conference in Tokyo on Saturday
following a meeting with his Japanese counterpart.

On Tuesday, Kishida said he agreed with Tillerson to hold a
face-to-face meeting in the near future and call each other by their
first names "Fumio" and "Rex" from now on.

Their first meeting is likely to take place on the sidelines of
Abe's upcoming talks with Trump.

If Kishida and Tillerson hold talks, China's assertiveness in
regional waters, North Korea's nuclear program and their diplomacy
toward Russia will be major agenda items, according to a Japanese
official. (Feb. 7)