With just two hours left in his trip to Asia, Vice President Joe Biden wanted to make something clear to the audience back home.
“I didn’t come to explain a damn thing,” he told U.S. military personnel on Aug. 24 at Yokota Air Base in Japan, where he spent his final days in Asia after four days in China and a stop in Mongolia.
Biden was dismissing reports that suggested his trip to meet with leaders of the world’s second biggest economy after the U.S. was intended to “explain our economic situation.”
The vice president’s last stop was at Marine Corps Base Hawaii on Kaneohe Bay yesterday before heading home.
“Asia and the United States are not separated by a great ocean,” he told the troops and family members. “We are bound by it. You are the blood and sinew that binds us. Over the last 60 years, no country has done more than the United States to promote the stability and security of the Asia-Pacific region. And the very growth of China in the Pacific basin is a consequence” of stability created by U.S. troops.
The Obama administration is under fire from Republicans in the U.S. over the slow pace of the recovery from the worst recession since the Great Depression and the nation’s long-term deficit.
While planned for months, Biden’s three-nation visit came less than two weeks after Standard & Poor’s Aug. 5 announcement that it was downgrading U.S. debt for the first time to AA+ from AAA. Moody’s Investors Service and Fitch Ratings, the two next biggest rating companies, affirmed their AAA ratings on the U.S.
China is the biggest foreign holder of U.S. Treasuries and China’s official Xinhua News Agency published a commentary, as Biden arrived in the country, saying “runaway” U.S. debt was “a ticking time bomb.”
In an Aug. 22 interview on board Air Force Two, Biden, 68, said “there were no probing questions about our economy” during his private meetings with Chinese leaders. Still, in his public remarks in Beijing with Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao at his side, Biden said he wanted “to make clear you have nothing to worry about,” adding that he and Wen shared an “absolute and mutual confidence” in the U.S. economy.
“He is not someone who has been known always to stick closely to the wording that was given to him by his handlers,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, senior fellow and director of the John L. Thornton China Center of Biden’s remarks. “He probably didn’t feel that he had to justify what the U.S. had done or will do but was perfectly happy to give the Chinese his very well-informed views on the situation in the U.S.”
Confidence in U.S.
Lieberthal said Chinese leaders were careful to publicly express their confidence in the U.S. economy because they have such a big stake in it.
“They weren’t trying to box him in or humiliate him,” Lieberthal said in an interview.
While U.S. debt and the global economy dominated the public portion of his China visit, one of the primary purposes was to get to know Biden’s official host, Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, who is likely to succeed President Hu Jintao in 2013.
Xi, 58, is the son of a former Communist Party boss and governor of southern China’s Guangdong Province. Before taking the vice president’s post, Xi served as Communist Party secretary for Shanghai and prior to that held the same post in Zhejiang, the second-richest province in China in per capita terms.
Biden spent several days with Xi, who was with the U.S. vice president in Chengdu and then traveled with Biden to Dujiangyan, a city in Sichuan Province where tens of thousands of people were killed by an earthquake in May 2008.
Biden described Xi as “strong” and “pragmatic” and intent on building a “personal friendship.”
Sources of friction between the U.S. and China did come up during Biden’s meetings. Those include Taiwan, Tibet and China’s currency.
While the Chinese will “continue to let their currency be revalued marginally, I don’t think we’re going to see any substantial change” in the next 12 months, Biden said in the interview. One of the reasons is that China is going through a transition over the next two years, he said. The year 2012 will not be “a year of radical change in China.”
While Biden was in China, six U.S-based businesses completed commercial deals with the Chinese, which the administration said would increase U.S. exports and new investment in the U.S. by more than $500 million.
The deals include an agreement between St. Louis, Missouri-based Peabody Energy Corp., the largest U.S. coal producer, and the government of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region to start environmental reviews ahead of a mine project in Xinjiang and a deal between Carlsbad, California-based Solatube International, which makes devices to capture and distribute daylight for buildings, through its Chinese subsidiary with China Kunshan Huaqiao Economic Development Zone.
Biden also visited Mongolia, where he thanked the leaders of the Alaska-sized nation with fewer than 3 million people for sending troops to Afghanistan and Iraq, and he stopped in Japan where he expressed U.S. support for its reconstruction following the earthquake, tsunami and subsequent nuclear plant meltdown.
Biden stirred criticism in the U.S. for a portion of his speech on Aug. 21 at Sichuan University in Chengdu, a thriving city in southwest China. While saying China’s policy of one child per family isn’t sustainable because the demographic pressures it’s creating, Biden said it’s “one which I fully understand -- I’m not second-guessing.”
Republicans, including House Speaker John Boehner of Ohio and two leading contenders for the party’s presidential nomination, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and Texas Governor Rick Perry, accused Biden of sanctioning the one-child policy.
“No government on Earth has the authority to place quotas on the value of innocent human life,” Boehner said in a statement.
The vice president’s office released a statement saying the administration “strongly opposes” China’s birth limits and that he was arguing against it to a Chinese audience.
Jeff Bader , who was senior director for Asia affairs at the National Security Council until April and is now a visiting scholar with the John L. Thornton China Center at the Brookings Institution, called Biden’s remarks “accurate” and “sensitive to his audience.”
“He offered a criticism in a manner that Chinese will understand and can appreciate,” Bader said.
Another event that clouded the message of Biden’s goodwill trip was a fight that broke out between the Georgetown University basketball team and a Chinese team at Beijing’s Olympic gymnasium the day after Biden’s arrival.
“That kind of thing could happen in a game at home and it wouldn’t have political consequences,” Biden said in the interview, calling the brawl “unfortunate.”