Biden visits China amid tensions over air defense zone

6:11 AM, Dec 4, 2013   |    comments
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden waves as he walks out of Air Force Two at the airport Dec. 4, 2013 in Beijing, China. (Photo: Getty Images)
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BEIJING -- After reassuring U.S. ally Japan that Washington shares its concerns over China's new air defense zone, Vice President Joe Biden flew from Tokyo to Beijing Wednesday to raise the issue directly with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Originally focused on trade and economic matters, Biden's East Asia tour has been hijacked by Beijing's unilateral establishment last month of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) that covers much of the East China Sea, including islands controlled by Japan but claimed by China.

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The sudden move riled the U.S., Japan and South Korea, all of whom have defied Beijing by sending military aircraft into the zone without prior notification or identification. China has threatened unspecified defensive measures against aircraft that do not comply with its rules. U.S. commercial carriers are reportedly complying.

Stressing the risk of mistakes and miscalculations, Biden said in Tokyo Tuesday that China and Japan needed "crisis management mechanisms and effective channels of communication". He promised to raise concerns with China's leaders "with great specificity" during his Beijing visit that included meetings Wednesday afternoon with Xi, followed by an evening banquet.

No press conferences are scheduled. Thursday Biden will meet China's Premier Li Keqiang, before heading to Seoul, the third and final leg of his week-long trip.

Biden benefits from a rare rapport with Xi, China's President and Communist Party leader, built during days spent together when Xi was Vice President. But he will find his diplomatic skills tested said Chinese analysts Wednesday, as China views its new zone and related issues very differently than the U.S. and Japan.

The Nov. 23 announcement seemed out of the blue, but the zone was foreshadowed by a domestic debate over the past three years, and is consistent with international practice in the 20-plus other ADIZs worldwide, said Wang Dong, head of the Center for Northeast Asian Strategic Studies at Peking University.

"One of China's main goals is to put more pressure on Japan and urge Japan to recognize the dispute over the Diaoyu Islands, and reciprocate the Chinese leaders' proposal to seek a diplomatic solution," he said.

The Diayou, called the Senkaku in Japan, are a rocky, uninhabited outcrop that may lie above rich marine and natural resources. Chinese and Japanese ships and planes have come into increasingly perilous proximity near the islands over the past year.

The U.S. government should do more to force Japan's "insincere" Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to start negotiations on the Diaoyu, "and not just play with words," said Wang. In addition, "all sides have to sit down to develop rules for managing the overlaps" with zones previously declared by Japan and South Korea, he said.

Such a meeting appears unlikely in the short-term, said Sun Zhe, director of the Center for Sino-U.S. Relations at Qinghua University in Beijing. The U.S. should reduce "provocative" actions such as flying B-52s through the zone, or risk turning China's dispute with Japan into a conflict between China and the U.S., he said.

Beijing may delay until after Biden's visit any announcement over its likely next air defense zone, over the South China Sea, where China has staked vast territorial claims and angered neighbors including Vietnam and the Philippines. But further tensions are inevitable as other powers react to China expanding its strategic space, said Shi Yinhong, an international relations expert at People's University in Beijing.

China and the U.S. have made "remarkable progress" in co-operating on international security issues such as Iran and Syria, but the ADIZ offers a reminder of fundamental tensions between the two powers, he said. "Although Sino-American economic and other relations could be in relatively good shape, the strategic rivalry becomes more profound and prominent," said Shi, also an advisor to China's State Council, or Cabinet. "For a long time in the future, the USA and Japan won't accept China's claim for strategic space in the Western Pacific."

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