WASHINGTON — The White House is tasking Vice President Joe Biden with the delicate duty of asserting U.S. power in Asia while ensuring that all parties play nice despite “a number of difficult legacy issues remaining from the previous century.”
Biden departs Monday for the weeklong swing through Japan, China and South Korea on what officials say is a “long-planned trip” intended to follow up on President Obama’s meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping in Southern California over the summer.
But senior administration officials this morning also indicated that the White House doesn’t plan on getting confrontational over China’s recent establishment of an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone over the disputed Senkaku Islands also claimed by Japan.
Under the new rules, all aircraft must get clearance from Chinese authorities or face a military reaction from PRC authorities guarding the zone. Washington responded by flying two unarmed B-52 bombers through the new zone.
China responded by announcing that they were watching, noting that the bombers “flew south and north along the eastern border of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone from 11:00 a.m. to 1:22 p.m. Tuesday, about 200 km to the east of the Diaoyu Islands.”
“We need to stress that China will identify every aircraft flying in the air defense identification zone according to the country’s announcement of aircraft identification rules for the air defense identification zone,” China’s defense ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng said. “China is capable of exercising effective control over this airspace.”
State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki was asked today whether the U.S. sees China’s announcement that it monitored the planes as an “implicit threat.”
“I would point you to DOD on specifics on that. They were their planes, part of a military exercise, but I don’t have any more specifics on it for you from here,” she said. There was a meeting today between Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and China’s vice minister of foreign affairs, but Psaki likewise brushed that off as “long scheduled, long before this.”
“There’ll be a range of issues discussed during that meeting, of course, including this, but it will likely – it will definitely be broader than that,” she added.
White House officials took much the same tack with the Biden trip: Even though China had upped the ante with its seizure of airspace the administration would be more focused on developing its “rich agenda” with the communist country.
“I think the fact that Vice President Biden has extraordinarily close and warm relations with the leaders of each of the three countries that he’s going to be visiting next week is quite an important factor in diplomacy and the rebalance,” a senior administration official said today, adding that Biden “knows President Xi as well, or better, than probably any American and possibly — virtually any — any leader.”
“So this matters. And I think that what you will see is that this relationship enables him to conduct a high level and a high quality dialogue that’s particularly valuable today among these three countries,” the official continued. “I would say all four of us — the U.S. and the Japanese, and the Chinese and the South Koreans — share quite a rich agenda across a spectrum of economic, and security, and global and regional issues. So it warrants this kind of high-level close coordination.”
The official downplayed the assertion that Biden would be going there to defuse any conflict, saying that “we’ve seen good progress” on engagement and dialogue between the two militaries since Biden’s last visit to China.
On the air defense zone, “clearly, the visit to China creates an opportunity for the vice president to discuss directly with policy makers in Beijing this issue to convey our concerns directly, and to seek clarity regarding the Chinese intentions in making this move at this time.”
“It also allows the vice president, I think, to make the broader point that there’s an emerging pattern of behavior by China that is unsettling to China’s own neighbors, and raising questions about how China operates in international space and how China deals with areas of disagreement with its neighbors,” the official continued. “But at the same time, to put it in perspective, you know, the vice president of the United States is not traveling to Beijing to deliver a demarche, let alone on a single issue. He’s going to have a — a very high-level and a very wide-ranging dialogue with senior Chinese leadership that covers a wide range of shared interests along with areas of concern, areas of cooperation, and areas of de-confliction.”
A senior administration official said China needs to “clarify its intentions…as a civil aviation matter, but also as a strategic matter.”
“I think that the — the U.S. commitment to the alliance with Japan and the alliance with the Republic of Korea both countries whose own existing air defense information zones — zones that have existed and functioned effectively for decades — that our commitment to our allies is beyond question,” the official said. “But I don’t think that is the matter at hand. Others including Taiwan have a similar problem with respect to an overlap in the ADIZ, and as I said, planes from countries throughout the world routinely overfly this.”
Biden will “have an opportunity” to “make clear to the Chinese leadership that we have concerns and that we have questions, but I think the underlying point here is that the strains caused by series of actions by China, in its relations with its Asian neighbors, is not a good thing, it’s not a good thing for the United States. It’s not a good thing for anyone.”
“And — so I think that this visit allows the vice president to discuss the issue of how China operates in international space and how China deals with areas of disagreement with its neighbors.”
China’s Defense Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said Saturday that this is not the last such move, stressing “China will establish other air defense identification zones at an appropriate time after completing preparations.”
Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, director of Asia-Pacific programs at the U.S. Institute of Peace, wrote on CNN.com this week that “China is busy designing and implementing a bolder foreign policy in light of an anticipated U.S. decline.”
“Unlike his predecessors, Xi is making foreign policy with the mindset of a great power, increasingly probing U.S. commitments to its allies in the region and exploiting opportunities to change the status quo,” she wrote.
A recent report to Congress stated that China has hiked its defense budget by 10 percent under Xi and is “rapidly expanding and diversifying its ability to strike U.S. bases, ships, and aircraft throughout the Asia Pacific region including those that it previously could not reach, such as U.S. military facilities on Guam.”
Biden will spend the holiday in Nantucket before leaving Sunday for Tokyo, where he’ll have a working dinner with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and meet with members of the Diet. He’ll also attend an event with Ambassador Caroline Kennedy to highlight the role of women in the Japanese economy.
He’ll then move on to Beijing for bilateral meetings with Xi and other PRC leaders to “pick up where President Obama and President Xi left off after Sunnylands and the G-20, with the kind of high-level personal engagement between the top leaderships of our two countries that is an essential part of advancing the U.S.-China relationship in the 21st century.”
Biden then heads to Seoul for meetings with South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Prime Minister Jung Hong-won. He’ll deliver keynote remarks at Yonsei University to mark this year’s 60th anniversary of the U.S.-Korea relationship. The VP will also meet with troops and “receive a briefing on security on the peninsula.”
“You know, there’s obviously a range of urgent and immediate issues that would benefit from high-level attention on this trip,” a senior administration official said.
One official acknowledged that China’s move “causes friction and uncertainty. It constitutes a unilateral change to the status quo in the region, a region that’s already fraught and it increases the risk of miscalculation and the risk of accidents.”
And Biden is considered by the administration to be “not one to be shy about making our views known.”