President Obama, at the start of a four-stop trip to Asia, sought to reassure Japan that the U.S. is on its side in a dispute with China over the tiny Senkaku islands chain, which has led to bluster and naval jockeying between the two countries in recent years.
In a letter to Japan's Prime Minster Shinzo Abe that was published in the leading daily Yomiuri Shinbun, Obama said that the U.S. security policy with Tokyo "is clear."
Obama wrote that he opposes "unilateral attempts to undermine Japan's administration of these islands" and said the disputes need to be resolved "through dialogue and diplomacy, not intimidation and coercion."
"The challenge for Obama during his week-long, four-nation tour will be to convince Asian partners that Washington is serious about its promised strategic "pivot" towards the region, while at the same time not harming U.S. ties with China, the world's second-biggest economy.
"The difficulty of Obama's balancing act was underscored hours before he arrived on Wednesday night when Chinese state media criticized U.S. policy in the region as 'a carefully calculated scheme to cage the rapidly developing Asian giant.'"
The trip, with stops also in Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea, was rescheduled from October, when the government shutdown forced the president to stay in Washington.
"On one level, the president has a long list of tasks awaiting him: He will try to make headway on trade negotiations with Japan, work to ease tensions between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye, foster a closer alliance with the government in Muslim-majority Malaysia, and shore up support for Philippine President Benigno Aquino III.
"But it is also, by its very nature, an interim step in the administration's larger project of seeking to 'rebalance' its relationship with the most economically and socially dynamic region of the world at a time when China continues to expand its influence there."