Sen. Marco Rubio said bluntly Friday the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea belong to Japan.
The Chinese government "has unilaterally declared an 'air defense identification zone' over international waters and the Senkaku Islands, which are the territory of our ally Japan. In the South China Sea, Beijing has dispatched ships and planes, moved oil rigs and even constructed artificial islands in an attempt to strengthen its position militarily," the Republican presidential hopeful said during a broader speech in South Carolina about U.S.-China relations.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest gave a careful answer when asked Friday about the status of the islands, making clear the official U.S. position has not shifted.
"We certainly have been unambiguous about the administration's commitment to our alliance with Japan, and we have strongly encouraged the Japanese and other partners and allies of the United States all across Asia ... to try to resolve concerns with Chinese behavior peacefully and through diplomacy," Earnest said. "We've made a similar case to the Chinese that it's in the best interests not just to the people of China and the Chinese economy but also the world for them to work effectively and in good faith diplomatically to resolve these differences, and we certainly are hopeful that they will."
Declaring that the uninhabited islands are actually Japanese territory would be a foreign policy shift for the United States, and China tends to respond negatively when U.S. lawmakers make such suggestions.
Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., drew criticism from the Chinese government when he weighed in on the dispute two years ago.
"We urge the U.S. lawmaker to stop making irresponsible remarks and avoid further complicating related issues and the regional situation," the Foreign Ministry told a state-run newspaper in response to McCain.
China refers to the island chain as the Diaoyu Islands.
"China is doing everything it can to make the 21st century a Chinese century. But if you want to know what a Chinese century would look like for the world, look no further than how the government treats its own people," Rubio said in his speech. "In just the last year, it has rounded up human rights advocates and thrown them in prison, torn down churches and oppressed Christians, forced parents to get abortions and sterilizations, detained political dissidents without trial or legal recourse, undermined the autonomy of Hong Kong, and tightened controls on the Internet."
Reacting to a new Wall Street Journal opinion piece , Earnest ridiculed Rubio's suggestion that the upcoming state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping be reduced to the status of a working visit. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, another GOP presidential hopeful, has been calling for the visit to be scrapped entirely.
"That sounds like the proposal of somebody who is running to be social secretary of the White House, not president of the United States," Earnest said.
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