China’s new air defense zone won’t affect U.S. military operations in the region even as it increases the risk of “miscalculations,” U.S. Vice President Joe Biden said.
Biden spoke in Seoul today after a visit to Beijing where he pressed Chinese leaders to take practical steps to avoid conflict over the air zone, which covers a large swathe of the East China Sea including islands also claimed by Japan and a submerged rock that South Korea considers its own.
He met South Korean President Park Geun Hye for talks earlier today at the presidential office in Seoul, where Park called the U.S.-South Korea relationship “the linchpin to stability and security not just on the Korean peninsula but in northeast Asia.” Biden and Park held hands as they walked together after greeting each other.
“I was absolutely clear on behalf of my President: We do not recognize this zone,” Biden said in a speech at Yonsei University. “It will have no effect on American operations. Just ask my general. None. Zero.”
Biden’s trip to Asia was originally intended to focus on the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact and reinforcing a renewed U.S. emphasis on the region. That agenda was overtaken by China’s Nov. 23 announcement of the air defense zone, which has ratcheted up tensions in the region as the U.S., South Korea and Japan all ran military flights through the area in a test of Chinese resolve.
The perils of in-air confrontations are illustrated by a 2001 incident when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. Navy plane monitoring Chinese communications over the South China Sea. The Chinese pilot was killed, while the U.S plane made an emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island. China held its crew of 24 for 11 days before freeing them after the U.S. expressed regret for the death of the Chinese pilot.
“U.S. military forces will continue to professionally conduct operations in international airspace and waters throughout the Indo-Asia-Pacific in steadfast support of our allies, partners and regional security,” Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, III, Commander, U.S. Pacific Command said in an e-mailed statement.
China’s declaration of the air zone has complicated its efforts to forge closer ties with Park’s government and gives her an incentive to further strengthen relations with the U.S.
The U.S. remains South Korea’s key strategic ally, serving as the main defense against North Korea and its arsenal of nuclear weapons. More than 28,000 U.S. troops are based in the country, 60 years after the war that sealed the division of the two Koreas. South Korea will take over wartime control of its 640,000 troops from the U.S. in December 2015.
South Korea last week demanded that China redraw the zone to exclude the reef, called Ieodo in Korean and Suyan Rock in Chinese. China rejected the request. South Korea yesterday said that it would extend its own air zone to cover the rock, which houses a research station and helipad.
Biden used his opening remarks to Park to reiterate the U.S. commitment to its military rebalancing to Asia. “The United States never says anything it does not do,” Biden said. It’s “never been a good bet to bet against America,” he said, “and America will continue to place its bet on South Korea.”
Park has courted China since her inauguration in February. She held a summit meeting with President Xi Jinping in June where the two agreed to deepen their strategic partnership. Park delivered a speech in Mandarin during her trip.
North Korea’s relations with the outside world have dimmed under leader Kim Jong Un, as the country tested its third atomic device in February and threatened nuclear strikes against South Korea and the U.S. On Nov. 6, North Korea rejected the idea of a summit after Park said she was willing to meet Kim if it led to concrete results.
The “United States and the world have to make it absolutely clear to Kim Jong Un that the international community will not accept or tolerate a nuclear-armed North Korea,” Biden said in his speech today. “That is consensus that unites us, whether in Tokyo, Beijing or in Seoul.”
The U.S. would not accept a permanent division between North and South Korea and the North would never achieve peace through a nuclear weapons program, he said. “We will never forget that the Koreas, North and South, are one people, equally deserving to be treated with dignity.”