US Vice President Joe Biden and Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao listen to their national anthems during a welcoming ceremony Wednesday inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (Lintao Zhang / AFP)
BEIJING — After reassuring US ally Japan that Washington shares its concerns over China's new air defense zone, Vice President Biden flew from Tokyo to Beijing Wednesday and raised the issue directly with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
Biden appeared somber and subdued as he and Xi spoke to reporters after a meeting that ran about an hour longer than scheduled. The two planned another meeting and a working dinner Wednesday evening.
Biden did not comment on the air defense issue. He said ultimately the US-China relationship must be based on trust and a positive notion of each other's motives. He said Xi is candid and constructive and that those qualities are sorely needed.
He said the possibilities are endless if the US and China can get their relationship right.
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 that covers much of the East China Sea, including islands controlled by Japan but claimed by China.
The sudden move riled the US, 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. US commercial carriers are reportedly complying.
Stressing the risk of mistakes and miscalculations, Biden said in Tokyo on 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.
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 US 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 air defense zones 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 US 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-US Relations at Qinghua University in Beijing. The US 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 US, he said.
The US is concerned about the procedures China will employ to enforce the zone, and its sudden announcement, while China cares most about sovereignty, said Sun. "We are trying to prevent Japan from pushing the envelope," he said. Moreover, the zone "is part of a continuous effort to push the USA and Japan back, as both conduct over 500 cases of reconnaissance close to China's borders," said Sun. "China is nervous and uncomfortable about this."
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 US 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 adviser 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."
Calum MacLeod writes for USA Today.