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Biden holds lengthy talks in Beijing amid China air zone dispute

Vice President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. U.S. officials say the men share a close personal bond.
(Lintao Zhang / Pool Photo / / AFP/Getty Images)

BEIJING — After months of planning a trip to boost U.S. trade with Asia, Vice President Joe Biden instead is leading an urgent diplomatic mission to calm tensions between China and its neighbors and prevent a potential conflict.

After arriving here Wednesday, Biden closeted himself with President Xi Jinping for 5 1/2 hours in what U.S. officials described as an effort to reassure anxious allies in the region and prevent escalation of the dispute over China’s recent declaration of an air defense identification zone over islands Japan administers.

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The White House hopes Biden can persuade Xi to rein in the assertive nationalism that has characterized his first year in office, one in which Chinese forays into the East China Sea and South China Sea have rattled neighbors such as Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines.

U.S. officials said Biden’s closed-door discussions and working dinner with Xi in the Great Hall of the People covered strategic as well as granular topics, including Iran, North Korea, Chinese interest rate liberalization, and reforms. Aides say the men, who have met repeatedly, share a close bond.

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But despite two lengthy exchanges, the pair did not resolve the thorny issue that has overshadowed Biden’s trip: China’s abrupt declaration Nov. 23 that all foreign aircraft must seek Chinese permission to enter a broad area over the East China Sea, including over disputed islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.

“The vice president laid out our position in detail,” a senior Obama administration official traveling with Biden said. “He indicated … that we don’t recognize the zone, that we have deep concerns about it.”

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The official said Biden urged Xi to take steps to “lower tensions, to avoid enforcement actions that could lead to crisis,” and to establish regular high-level communications with Japan and other neighboring nations “to avoid the risk of mistake, miscalculation, accident or escalation.”

Biden did not ask Xi to rescind the declaration, which is unlikely given the political pressure in China to expand its offshore claims. The White House wants Beijing to stop scrambling warplanes to police the zone and to work out an arrangement with Japan on how the two nations will conduct themselves in the heavily congested area.

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The official said Xi was “equally comprehensive in laying out China’s perspective on the zone, on their view of territorial disputes in the region and broader regional tensions.” He added: “Ultimately, President Xi took on board what the vice president laid out. Now, from our perspective, it’s up to China. We’ll see how things unfold in the coming days and weeks.”

Biden’s diplomacy is especially sensitive, analysts say, because China plans to expand claims over other seas and air lanes in the region and wants to judge U.S. reaction. At the same time, Chinese officials are eager to move past the latest flare-up to other diplomatic and economic issues.

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The Pentagon has defied Beijing by flying two unarmed B-52 bombers through the restricted zone. U.S. aviation authorities have instructed U.S. airlines to comply with the Chinese requirement of giving notice, however, something Japan and South Korea have refused to do.

Neither Biden nor Xi mentioned the dispute in his formal statement, though Xi noted that the region was “undergoing profound and complex changes” and that “regional hot-spot issues keep cropping up.”

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The White House has played up the friendship between Biden and Xi, who met when Xi served as vice president under his predecessor, Hu Jintao. They last met in February 2012, when Biden took Xi to a basketball game in Los Angeles between the Lakers and the Phoenix Suns.

Administration officials, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity in order to discuss the private meetings, said Wednesday that Biden and Xi have a personal degree of comfort that takes them far beyond their formal talking points.

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“I was quite taken aback by the nature of the dynamic between them — the comfort that they have with one another, their willingness to really talk about issues in a way that was personal, anecdotal, sort of building on each other’s analysis,” said one U.S. official involved in the talks.

Initially, Xi appeared not to recognize Biden, saying, “Nice to meet you,” though that may have been an interpreter’s error. Later Xi said, “Let me again warmly welcome you to China, my old friend.” As they walked off, Biden placed his hand on Xi’s back.

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Nonetheless, China does not consider the United States an honest broker in its disputes with Japan, a distrust made clear in a barrage of editorials that greeted Biden in Beijing.

“Despite trying to present the image of being an impartial mediator, Washington has obviously taken Japan’s side,” the English-language China Daily said.

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The clash has underscored the challenges the Obama administration faces as it seeks to shift more assets and attention from the Middle East to the Western Pacific. A key goal is to persuade China to conduct itself according to global norms.

But China’s surprise assertion of the air defense zone highlights how many rules are still in dispute, and how regional rivals still lack regular high-level communications, much less means for settling conflicts.

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China has signaled that it wants to reduce tensions. The state-controlled media have toned down their nationalistic treatment of the issue, and the Foreign Ministry on Wednesday described the area as “a zone of cooperation, not confrontation.”

Even so, analysts say some risk of military conflict remains.

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Sheila Smith, an Asia specialist at the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations, said Chinese and Japanese warplanes “have been scrambling against each other for some time, but they haven’t been operating in that kind of proximity.”

“It’s a very dangerous scenario,” she said.

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The Obama administration takes no position on the sovereignty of the islands that are at the core of the dispute. But it does consider them under Japanese administration, and it has cautioned Beijing that it shouldn’t miscalculate U.S. determination to live up to its alliance obligations to use military force to defend Japan.

In Washington, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel criticized China’s claim of the air defense identification zone, but he did not call for it to be eliminated.

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“The biggest concern that we have is how it was done so unilaterally and so immediately without any consultation,” he said at a news conference. He called for China, Japan and South Korea “to stay calm and responsible. These are combustible issues.”

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said China was violating the “international norm” by demanding that any aircraft entering the zone identify itself, instead of only those aircraft that intend to enter Chinese sovereign airspace.

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“It wasn’t the declaration … that actually was destabilizing,” Dempsey said. “It was their assertion that they would cause all aircraft entering the [zone] to report, regardless of whether they were intending to enter into the sovereign airspace of China. And that is destabilizing.”

So far, the dispute hasn’t affected commercial relations between the U.S. and China, the world’s two largest economies, and analysts expressed hope that the tension would ease in coming weeks.

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Nicholas Lardy, a China expert at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, noted that China already appeared to be backing away from its initial position, indicating that it wasn’t going to scramble jets every time somebody entered the defense zone.

“Maybe from a distance of a week or two it won’t look as potentially threatening as it does now,” he said.

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

paul.richter@latimes.com

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Demick reported from Beijing and Richter from Washington. Times staff writers David S. Cloud and Don Lee in Washington contributed to this report.


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