US President Barack Obama refrained from mentioning the US government's conventional view that it takes a neutral stance on territorial sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture during his joint press conference with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe after their summit meeting on April 28, in line with a prior request from the Japanese government, according to Japanese government sources.
It is believed that Obama did so aiming to reinforce precautions against China over the Senkaku Islands in the wake of its heavy-handed moves of maritime advancement in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.
Since Okinawa Prefecture was returned to Japanese rule from the United States in 1972, the US government has recognised that the Senkaku Islands are under Japan's administrative control, but has maintained a neutral position over which country holds territorial sovereignty over the islands.
This is because China and Taiwan also claim territorial sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands.
At a joint press conference in April last year when he visited Japan, Obama clearly stated that the Senkaku Islands are covered by Article 5 of the Japan-US Security Treaty, which stipulates that the United States is obliged to defend Japanese territories. Obama was the first US president to clearly mention it.
However, Obama also said, "We don't take a position on final sovereignty determinations with respect to the Senkakus." He thus underscored that their territorial sovereignty is a separate issue.
The Japanese government has requested the US government to confirm that the territorial sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands belongs to Japan.
During Abe's recent visit to the United States, the Japanese government requested that Obama not make any remarks to indicate the US government's neutral stance, and the US government accepted the request, according to the sources.
Based on the prior coordination between the two governments, Obama only mentioned the point that the United States is obliged to defend the Senkaku Islands under the Japan-US Security Treaty.
It is likely that Obama avoided mentioning territorial sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands on this latest occasion because China has been reinforcing moves to change the status quo in line with its own territorial claims. For example, China is unilaterally implementing reclamation work around rock reefs in the South China Sea.
A senior Foreign Ministry official interpreted Obama's stance as "indicating that Mr. Obama's views on China are getting harsh."