Vice President Joe Biden is embarking on a crucial and delicate diplomatic mission – to draw a clear line against China’s new air-defense zone in East Asia, but in a way that doesn’t heighten already rising tensions.
To pull it off, Biden will have to display a level of tact that isn’t always his strong suit and take full advantage of his unusually personal relationship with Chinese president Xi Jinping.
It is essential that President Barack Obama follow up with an Asia tour of his own – and much sooner than his next scheduled visit in April.
The president declared two years ago that the United States would “pivot” toward Asia and play a bigger role in the region, partly as a bulwark to China’s growing ambitions and military capabilities. As problems pile up, however, he has yet to explain to longtime allies, newer partners or potential adversaries what this new policy actually means – and how America plans to both contain and cooperate with China. Obama had a prime opportunity ruined last month, when he had to cancel a major trip, marooned in Washington by the government shutdown crisis.
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So the stakes are even higher for Biden’s weeklong trip, which is to start Sunday and include meetings with leaders of China, Japan and South Korea.
On Friday, China scrambled jets for the first time to defend its newly declared air-defense zone above eight uninhabited, but disputed, islands in the East China Sea. Japan controls the islands, but China ratcheted up its claim after oil was discovered beneath them.
Since China announced the zone last weekend, U.S. officials quickly condemned the move and sent two B-52s through the area. Japan, South Korea and Taiwan also issued protests.
The United States and its allies are right to respond forcefully to this provocation. China’s unilateral incursion into international airspace cannot go unanswered, or it could lead to even more destabilizing acts. China also has territorial disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam that flare up.
At the same time, the White House must be careful of miscalculations and miscommunication. It is dangerous for the entire world if a new cold war is created.
While this immediate crisis must be addressed, Biden’s agenda is much broader. On the economy, there’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, a free-trade agreement important to the U.S. economy, and notably California’s. On national security, there’s North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
The importance of those issues makes it even more obvious that whatever progress the vice president makes, Obama, himself, needs to go to Asia.