GIVING no ground, Chinese President Xi Jinping and US Vice President Joe Biden traded strong arguments Wednesday over China’s contentious new air defence zone, with little indication of progress toward defusing a situation that is raising anxieties in Asia and beyond.
Though Biden made clear the deep concern of the US and other countries during the five-and-a-half hours of talks — themselves highly unusual for an American vice president and Chinese president — Xi vigorously made his case, too, for China’s declaration of new rules concerning a strip of airspace more than 600 miles long above disputed islands in the East China Sea.
Biden said he had been “very direct” about the firm US position and Washington’s expectations for Beijing in his conversation with Xi.
“China’s recent and sudden announcement of a new air defense identification zone has, to state the obvious, caused significant apprehension in the region,” Biden said. But he said he also put the issue in a broader context when he met with Chinese leaders. As China’s economy grows, its stake in regional security grows, too, because China will have more to lose.
The US worries that China’s demand that pilots entering the airspace file flight plans with Beijing could lead to an accident or a confrontation spiraling dangerously out of control. Now it is up to the Chinese to take steps to lower tensions, and “it’s a question of behavior and action,” said a US official.
Though Biden expressed no disappointment publicly, the outcome of his visit was not what the US might have hoped for.
Earlier in the week, the vice president had stood shoulder to shoulder in Tokyo with the leader of Japan, China’s regional rival, pledging to raise Washington’s concerns with Xi directly. But as he arrived in Beijing, an editorial in the state-run China Daily charged Washington with “turning a blind eye to Tokyo’s provocations,” warning that Biden would hit a dead end should he come “simply to repeat his government’s previous erroneous and one-sided remarks.”
Echoing Biden’s concerns from Washington, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called China’s announcement of the zone “destabilising.”
Earlier, Biden told Chinese youngsters waiting to get visitor visas processed at the US Embassy that American children are rewarded rather than punished for challenging the status quo, an implicit criticism of the Chinese government’s authoritarian rule.