TOKYO — President Obama offered a security blanket to a staunch Asian ally on Thursday, declaring on a visit here that the United States was obligated by a defense treaty to protect Japan in its confrontation with China over a clump of islands in the East China Sea.
But Mr. Obama stopped short of siding with Japan in the dispute over who has sovereignty over the islands, urging both sides to refrain from provocations and emphasizing that the United States was determined to cultivate good relations with Beijing.
The president’s carefully calibrated statement, delivered alongside Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, captured a delicate balancing act: He sought to reassure Japan that the United States would back it at a tense moment but tried to avoid the perception of containing China.
Mr. Obama and Mr. Abe kept the focus on managing rising tensions in the East China Sea, where China last year imposed an air defense identification zone as a way of asserting its sovereignty over those waters.
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Japan and China have come uncomfortably close to a military skirmish over the disputed islands, which Japan administers and are known as the Senkaku but which Beijing claims under the name Diaoyu.
“Historically, they have been administered by Japan, and we do not believe that they should be subject to change unilaterally,” Mr. Obama said. “What is a consistent part of the alliance is that the treaty covers all territories administered by Japan.”
Mr. Obama’s statement was important to the Japanese because it was the first time the president explicitly put the islands under American protection, though Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Secretary of State John Kerry had made similar statements in the past.
The Chinese government reacted swiftly, saying it was “firmly opposed” to Mr. Obama’s position, which was first reported here on Wednesday in a written answer to questions submitted to the president by a Japanese newspaper, The Yomiuri Shimbun.
Insisting that Japan’s claims to the islands were “illegal and invalid,” the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesman, Qin Gang, said the 1960 United States-Japan security treaty was “a bilateral arrangement forged in the Cold War era, and it should not undermine China’s territorial sovereignty and legitimate rights and interests.”
More than anything, though, Mr. Obama appeared desperate to defuse the situation. At one point, he referred to the disputed islands as a “rock” and said they should not be allowed to derail a relationship between two countries that could otherwise be productive.
“It would be a profound mistake to continue to see escalation around this issue rather than dialogue and confidence-building measures between Japan and China,” Mr. Obama said. “And we’re going to do everything we can to encourage that diplomatically.”