U.S. reaffirms commitment to Japan to defending islands disputed with China

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Chinese marine surveillance ship Haijian No. 51 sails near Uotsuri island, one of the disputed islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China in the East China Sea

TOKYO (Reuters) - New U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, during his first phone call with his Japanese counterpart, reaffirmed America's commitment to Tokyo to defending a group of East China Sea islets claimed by both Japan and China, the Pentagon said.

Austin, in talks with Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi, confirmed that Article 5 of the U.S.-Japan security treaty, which stipulates U.S. defence obligations to Japan, covers the uninhabited islands, the Pentagon said in a statement.

The islets are known as the Senkaku islands in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

Austin also reaffirmed that the United States remains opposed to any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East China Sea, the Pentagon said.

Japan has become increasingly concerned about Chinese activity in the East China Sea, including incursions into waters around the islands.

The talks marked the first ministerial discussions between Tokyo and Washington since U.S. President Joe Biden took office on Wednesday. Retired Army general Austin made history on Friday by becoming America's first Black defence secretary.

Japan's defence ministry was not immediately available for comment.

U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said on Sunday a U.S. Navy strike group entered the South China Sea on Saturday, the same day Taiwan reported a large incursion of Chinese bombers and fighter jets into its air defence identification zone near the Pratas Islands.

(Reporting by Yuka Obayashi; Additional reporting by Idrees Ali in Washington; Edited by Tom Hogue and Nick Macfie)