US Vice President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping will meet in a climate fraught with tension after China’s declaration of a new air defence zone above disputed islands in the East China Sea has pitted the US and China against each other.
A day before seeing Xi on Wednesday, Biden stood in Japan and publicly rebuked China for trying to enforce its will on its neighbours, escalating the risk of a potentially dangerous accident.
Although Biden had hoped to focus on areas of cooperation as the US seeks an expanded Asia footprint, his two-day trip to Beijing will primarily focus on bridging the widening gulf over the airspace dispute that has put Asia on edge.
action has raised regional tensions and increased the risk of accidents and miscalculation”]
Stepping off his plane in Beijing, Biden was met by a Chinese military honour guard before being whisked to the US Embassy, where the vice president was visiting the consular section to highlight efforts to reduce visa processing times for Chinese visitors to the US.
Meeting Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao, at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, Biden said that the US and China must expand practical cooperation and deliver results.
He added that he was impressed with Xi’s commitment to managing differences candidly, as he is set to meet with the Chinese president later in the evening.
Despite Washington’s preference not to get involved in a territorial spat, concerns that China’s action could portend a broader effort to assert its dominance in the region has drawn in the US, putting Biden in the middle as he jets from Japan to China to South Korea on a weeklong tour of Asia.
“We, the United States, are deeply concerned by the attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea,” Biden said after meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in Tokyo on Tuesday. “This action has raised regional tensions and increased the risk of accidents and miscalculation.”
To that end, Biden said he would raise those concerns with China’s leaders “with great specificity” during his Beijing visit.
As if to make a point that the newly declared air defence zone will be a major topic of Biden’s talks with the Chinese, China’s Defence Ministry issued a statement reiterating the country’s determination to enforce the zone just as the vice president was arriving in Beijing on Wednesday.
China’s military is “fully capable of exercising effective control” over the area covering the disputed islands in the East China Sea, the ministry spokesman, Geng Yansheng said.
Although the US has repeatedly said it rejects the zone, Biden has avoided calling publicly for Beijing to retract it.
The East China Sea zone covers more than 960km from north to south above international waters separating China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan.
China says all aircraft entering the zone must notify Chinese authorities beforehand or face unspecified defensive measures.
The new round of tensions with China comes as the US strives to increase its own engagement, influence and military presence in Asia, in part as a hedge against China’s growing power.
But the Obama administration has said it is pursuing a new model for engagement with China, where the two countries can cooperate economically while maintaining a healthy competition.