Biden in Tokyo Conveys U.S. Concern Over China Air Zone

Vice President Joseph Biden expressed U.S. opposition to China’s declaration of a new air defense zone and sought to assure Japan of American support.

The U.S. is “deeply concerned by the attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea,” Biden said yesterday in Tokyo as he met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “This action has raised regional tensions and increased the risk of accidents and miscalculation.”

The vice president’s trip, originally intended to pin down a trade deal and renew U.S. emphasis on Asia, has been overshadowed by China’s extension of the defense zone into airspace over islands claimed by both China and Japan. The move has strained relations between the world’s second and third-largest economies and raised the risk of a confrontation in the East China Sea.

Biden travels to Beijing today, where he is scheduled to meet with Chinese officials to seek clarity about their intentions surrounding the zone even as he seeks to smooth ties. White House press secretary Jay Carney said at a briefing in Washington that the U.S. doesn’t recognize China’s larger air defense zone and “urges China not to implement” it.

Commercial air carriers have been thrust into the middle of the dispute, with U.S. airlines notifying China before flying into the zone as Japan tells its carriers not to supply such data. China has said it hopes civilian airlines will notify authorities when they fly through the zone, though it’s backed down from tougher demands for compliance made when the zone was announced Nov. 23.

China’s Approach

“China feels that now it should make its presence felt internationally and recent months have shown it’s taking what I call a sweet and sour approach to diplomatic relations,” Pauline Loong, managing director at Asia-Analytica, told Bloomberg TV yesterday. “Showing its trade partners that we can be nice but underneath the velvet glove we also have the iron fist -- don’t take us for granted.”

The Chinese zone overlaps with Japan’s and covers islands that have been at the center of tensions between the two countries for decades. The U.S. says it acknowledges Japan’s administration of the islands, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, though it takes no stance on ultimate sovereignty over them.

No Split

Meeting with Biden, Abe said Japan has seen “steady development in the relationship.” The U.S. and Japan agree on the air defense zone and there isn’t a split, said a U.S. administration official who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly on Biden’s trip.

“The vice president and I agreed that the U.S.-Japan alliance will continue to play a pivotal role for peace and stability of this region,” Abe said. “We will not change our government policies, including the operations of our armed forces and will continue to cooperate.”

Biden said the dispute underscores the need for crisis-management and to set up communication channels between Japan and China to cut the risk of escalation. He said he would raise those concerns with China as well. Biden stopped short of demanding China withdraw the zone.

Carney said the U.S. position “has been clear.” He refused to preview Biden’s message to China’s leadership or what kind of pressure the could bring to bear.

U.S. Allies

A central part of Biden’s trip, which will also include a stop in South Korea, will be persuading allies that American leaders are sincere about a rebalancing of U.S. foreign policy toward the Asia-Pacific region and away from the Middle East. President Barack Obama canceled a trip in October to Asia because of the U.S. debt impasse, sending Secretary of State John Kerry in his place. He plans a trip to the region in April.

Biden is also seeking progress on the 12-nation Trans Pacific Partnership, an accord that would link an area with about $28 trillion in annual economic output and which the U.S. wants concluded by the end of the year.

While China has said it may be interested in joining the accord, Biden’s main focus in Beijing will be U.S.-China relations and the zone itself. Since China made the announcement, the U.S., Japan and South Korea have all flown military aircraft into the area to challenge enforcement of it and display their refusal to abide by the Chinese rules.

Raising Risks

China’s move “appears to be a provocative attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea, a highly sensitive area, and thus raises regional tensions and increases the risk of miscalculation, confrontation and accidents,” Carney said.

The U.S. stance has gained the backing of allies outside the region, including the European Union. The bloc issued a statement Nov. 29 saying the zone “contributes to raising tensions in the region.”

The White House issued a fact sheet after Biden’s meeting with Abe saying the two sides will work together to “strengthen maritime order based on fundamental principles and the rule of law.”

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said at a briefing in Beijing yesterday that more than 30 airlines from three regions and 10 countries have notified China of their flight plans.

(Corrects date reference in final paragraph. For more on the China air-zone dispute, see EXT5.)
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