China Offers Japan Talks on Air Zone as Biden Meets Xi

China offered Japan talks on the safety of aircraft in overlapping air defense zones after U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden urged Asia’s top two economies to set up channels for resolving their disputes.

“China is willing, on the basis of equality and mutual respect, to communicate with Japan to jointly safeguard the order and safety of relevant airspace,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said today. Biden arrived in Beijing a day after he met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo.

China’s offer reflected efforts by the leadership to force Japan to discuss a territorial dispute in the East China Sea that leaders including Abe have so far refused to acknowledge even exists. The defense zone, which covers islands claimed by both sides, has ratcheted up tension in the region to their highest point since Japan bought some of the islands last September and spurred protests across China.

Japan has administered the islands, called Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, since at least 1972. It says that sovereignty isn’t an issue and has refused any negotiations as a result.

“The Japanese don’t acknowledge that there is any dispute over the sovereignty of the islands and the Chinese want to start a discussion that will make that a point of contention,” said Rana Mitter, an Oxford University professor and author of the book “Forgotten Ally” about China’s conflict with Japan in World War II. “Clearly that’s their strategy -- to move it on the table.”

Trade Deal

Biden’s trip, originally intended to pin down a Pacific trade deal and renew the U.S. emphasis on Asia, has been overshadowed by China’s creation of the zone. He had been expected to build on a meeting in California in June when President Xi Jinping met President Barack Obama and predicted “fresh momentum” for ties.

Biden has said he’ll seek clarity about Communist Party leaders’ intentions on the zone that was announced Nov. 23. He’s seeking both to reassure U.S. allies about the U.S.’s commitment to the Asia-Pacific and to ease tensions with China.

In a meeting with Xi today, Biden called the U.S.-China relationship “full of promise.” He praised Xi as candid and constructive, and said “both qualities are sorely needed.” The two spoke privately for two hours, exceeding the 45 minutes their schedules had allotted them, and neither directly discussed the air zone dispute in their public remarks.

Not Tranquil

“Regional hot spot issues keep cropping up and there are more pronounced global challenges such as climate change and energy security,” Xi said. “The world as a whole is not tranquil.”

U.S., Japanese and South Korean military aircraft have flown into China’s new zone since it was announced. Chinese planes have also flown through the area over the islands that China and Japan claim.

That’s raised concerns of a diplomatic crisis like the one that broke out in 2001 when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. Navy plane over the South China Sea. The Chinese pilot was killed while the U.S. plane’s 24 crew members were detained for 11 days after making an emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island.

Throwing Weight

“China is throwing its weight around as only a really powerful nation can do,” Greg Barton, a professor at Monash University’s School of Political and Social Inquiry in Melbourne, said of China’s decision to create the zone. “It’s a high stakes game of chicken. Hopefully it is just about forcing Japan to the negotiating table.”

Biden met Abe in Tokyo yesterday and reaffirmed the U.S. alliance with Japan. Abe said Japan has seen “steady development in the relationship.”

The U.S. is “deeply concerned by the attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea,” Biden said yesterday. “This action has raised regional tensions and increased the risk of accidents and miscalculation.”

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. 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.

Substantial Headway

Biden shouldn’t expect to make substantial headway during his China visit if he comes “simply to repeat his government’s previous erroneous and one-sided remarks,” the China Daily said in an editorial posted today on its website.

“It is Japan that has unilaterally changed the status quo,” it said in a reference to Japan’s decision to buy some of the islands.

In his meeting with Abe, 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 stopped short of demanding China withdraw the zone.

At a briefing yesterday, Hong conveyed China’s impatience with the Japanese stance and said the zone was created only to protect China’s national security.

“The Japanese side on one hand keeps on saying that we should hold dialogue, but when it really comes to dialogue, it closes the door,” he said. “This fully shows Japan’s hypocrisy in this regard.”

— With assistance by Henry Sanderson

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