Feb. 4 (UPI) — Speaking in Japan, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis reaffirmed the military’s commitment to defending uninhabited islands that belong to Japan, but that China has also claimed it owns, drawing a stern rebuke from Beijing.
Mattis, in keeping with a decision by the Obama administration to side with its ally Japan in the territorial dispute, said the disputed islands known in Japan and the Senkaku Islands and in China as the Daioyus Islands, fall under the defense treaty signed between the United States and Japan after World War II. Under the terms of that treat, the United States is bound to help defend Japanese territory from foreign attacks. In exchange for U.S. assurances of its defense, Japan agreed to maintain a military with limited aggressive capabilities.
Japan and China have engaged in military stare-downs over the islands multiple times in recent years, with naval and air forces engaging in standoffs in the East China Sea.
While the islands themselves present little strategic or economic benefit, both nations have eyed the potential for oil drilling and access to fishing water off their coasts. Ownership would also allow either nation to increase the amount of the East China Sea over which they can claim ownership.
Mattis’ speech drew a fast response from the Chinese. Lu Kang, the chief spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, accused the United States of bringing “instability” to the region.
“Diaoyu and its affiliated islands have been Chinese territory since ancient times. These are historical facts that cannot be changed. The so-called U.S.-Japan security treaty was a product of the Cold War, and it should not harm China’s territorial sovereignty and legitimate rights,” Lu said.
“We urge the U.S. side to take a responsible attitude, stop making wrong remarks on the issue involving the Diaoyu islands’ sovereignty, and avoid making the issue more complicated and bringing instability to the regional situation.”