Earlier this week, Vice President Joe Biden spent five and a half hours with Chinese President Xi Xinping. They met in three formats — one a restricted meeting with a small handful of advisers, the second a larger meeting with many more advisers, and the third a small working dinner. All of this on the heels of spending the day before a good chunk of time meeting and dining with Japan’s Prime Minister Shintaro Abe.
Tensions have been growing in Asia between a number of key regional players — particularly between Japan and China which have been squaring off over an escalating feud over which of their sovereignty claims will stick to five visually trivial islands in the East China Sea. The Chinese call these rocks the Diaoyu islands, and Japan calls them the Senkaku. In the past week, China raised blood pressure for Japan’s prime minister and many a commercial airline pilot by unilaterally imposing an Air Defense Identification Zone, or now popularly referred to as an ADIZ, that overlaps with Japan’s and South Korea’s territorial claims.
With Joe Biden already scheduled to make a trip to these same three countries snarling at each other, Biden became the obvious Obama administration official to referee what has been underway and to issue guidance on America’s perspective about China’s actions and the possible countermoves of others in the area.
Many observers in Japan — and some hawks in the United States — wanted to see Joe Biden draw a red line over China’s self-declared ADIZ, which the United States, Japan and South Korea all maintain around their own shores. They had hoped that the US might join Japan in demanding China withdraw the ADIZ and to step back from its aggressive and potentially destabilizing move — but that did not unfold on this trip. In a delicately constructed diplomatic effort, Japan’s Prime Minister ‘did not’ ask Joe Biden to demand a rollback of China’s air defense identification zone, because according to a senior Japan Foreign Ministry official, Abe knew that Biden would not ask Xi Jinping to do this and didn’t want the world to see any light between Japan and America on their positions.
Why did the Japanese think that Biden wouldn’t demand withdrawal of a line in the air that senior administration officials have called “potentially dangerous” and “provocative”? Insiders say Biden and the President for whom he works didn’t want to draw a red line in an already tense mess where there were other options than escalating into a full-blown collision, and Biden pretty much knew that China would not tear down that ephemeral wall.
So into the fray Biden has moved, counseling all parties to grow up and to become more rational and sensible in contributing to regional stability rather than undermining it, and thus harming their own economic prospects and security. During his Tokyo meetings, Biden reaffirmed America’s support of Japan, calling the island nation “the cornerstone of America’s security in the Pacific.” He and other Senior White House officials said that US-Japan relations were at their high water mark and had never been better. He picked up Japan’s previous initiative calling for a hotline to be installed between Tokyo and Beijing and broadened it conceptually to regional crisis management mechanisms and infrastructure — ostensibly bringing South Korea into the mix trying to preempt inadvertent “accidents and miscalculations.”
While in Tokyo, Biden called on China to not create any more ADIZs and to take steps to deescalate tensions as well as to ratchet down the martial decibel level of flight interceptions by Chinese fighters.. Senior White House officials reported that the US and Japan would not recognize the ADIZ and would not share flight identification information with China with regard to US military or Japan Self Defense aircraft. Commercial aircraft are managed differently than fighters and bombers, and the Federal Aviation Administration automatically issues guidance to all commercial carriers operating in international airspace to comply with information requests in any air identification zones. Senior Obama administration officials have stated that while commercial US aircraft will provide Chinese authorities their flight information, this is not a shift in policy and not official recognition of China’s ADIZ.
While this is not red-line drawing, Biden has tried to get the Japanese to drop their hackles a bit while at the same time urging China to desist in making a complex situation worse. Biden is creating a third way which is neither full appeasement nor a track to military collision — a strategy likely to upset everyone a bit in the short term but likely to look more smart than not in the long run.
During the press access to a portion of the bilateral meeting between Vice President Biden and President Xi, Biden seemed solemn for effect, emphasizing the importance of his friendship with Xi and how a new approach to great power relations, which Xi has advocated, requires trust and understanding each other’s motives. Given later reports by senior White House officials that Xi and Biden were picking up on each other’s cues and sentences from earlier encounters in Chengdu and Los Angeles and had become genuinely bonded and casual in ways that one top US official said he was “taken aback” by in a positive sense.
“They covered every single topic in the U.S.-China relationship,” said one senior administration official. “The conversation was very much a back-and-forth. It reflected the casual candor that the two leaders have developed.” On the ADIZ, Biden “indicated that we don’t recognize the zone, that we have deep concerns.” Biden told Xi that “We are looking to China to take steps to reduce tensions.”
A senior administration official also shared that “President Xi was equally clear in laying out their view of the zone and of territorials disputes in the region.” The official said. “Ultimately, President Xi took on board what the vice president said. It’s up to China, and we’ll see how things will unfold in the coming days and weeks.”
Biden seems to know that Japan, South Korea and China are not going to quickly create a Kumbaya Asia. That’s not in the cards given the deep historical grievances and pulsing throb of nationalism in each of these countries. However, in the past, America’s role as an ultimate guarantor of security and stability in the Asia Pacific may have caused a moral hazard problem in that nationalist leaders could shake their fists at each other, and poke and seethe referencing nasty encounters decades or centuries earlier. That behavior by Chinese, Japanese and Korean leaders is in part possible because they know that ultimately, they will not ‘really’ collide — as America will keep them from doing it. If the US were not the security partner in the region, leaders might be more cautious with their aggressive words and deeds as they’d come at a much higher price.
Joe Biden seems to be calling foul on that — and positioning America not to be the power on the line if China and Japan can’t come to terms but rather pushing these countries to not free ride on American security but rather to collectively build a more stable and resilient infrastructure for not only managing conflict but envisioning a different future of what Joe Biden called “limitless benefits.”
An earlier version of this article ran at The Atlantic.