The United States and China are talking about the need for cooperation and dialogue as visiting U.S. Vice President Joe Biden and China's president, Xi Jinping met in the Chinese capital. Among other issues, the two discussed the dispute over China's declaration of an air defense zone over islands administered by Japan. When they met with journalists, though, neither Biden nor Xi brought up the matter.
In a careful diplomatic dance, Xi and Biden talked openly about the challenges the two countries face in building a stronger relationship and trust. Speaking to reporters Wednesday, the two did not specifically mention China's recent, controversial decision to create an air defense identification zone that has loomed over Biden's trip to Asia.
U.S. officials say Biden expressed Washington's concerns over China's new air defense identification zone, or ADIZ, during talks with Xi. The officials told reporters the vice president indicated the U.S. does not recognize the zone, while Xi laid out China's view on the matter.
In a brief encounter with reporters before their meeting, Xi spoke about the need for the United States and China, with two of the world's biggest economies, to cooperate and address a growing range of profound and complex challenges.
Air defense zones claimed by China and Japan
Xi said the global economy has gone into a period of deep adjustment.
"The world economy has gone into a period of in-depth adjustment," he said. "Regional hotspot issues keep popping up, and there are more pronounced global challenges, such as climate change and energy security. The world is not tranquil.”
Xi said China is willing and ready to work together with the United States to build a new model of great power relations. He also stressed the need for each side to respect each other's core interests and major concerns - a phrase that frequently is used to refer to interests such as China's territorial claims.
Biden said the thing that impresses him about China's new leader is his candid and constructive approach to developing a new relationship with Washington. Biden said both qualities are sorely needed in the relationship.
"The way I was raised was to believe that change presents opportunity," he said. "Opportunity on regional security, on a global level, opportunity on climate change and energy, and a whole range of issues that the world needs to see change in the next decade or so."
China's decision to declare a new air defense identification zone off its northeastern coast is but one of many challenges the two sides are facing in forging that new relationship. Some, such as Beijing Foreign Studies University political scientist Xie Tao, believe the way the policy was unveiled was a mistake.
"If China really wants to build up a new model of great power relations, this is the last thing to do to build up a great power relationship. I think it is not controversial at all for China to establish this ADIZ," said Xie. "However, I think that international relations scholars and commentators both in China and outside of China agree that the timing and scope of the ADIZ are too controversial."
During Biden's first stop in Asia, the issue dominated discussions in Tokyo. While there, the vice president talked about the strength of Washington's close alliance with Japan and voiced deep U.S. concern about the air zone.
He promised to raise the issue "in great specificity" during his visits with Chinese leaders, including Xi.
Biden also has suggested that both sides establish "confidence-building measures, including emergency communications channels," to help reduce tensions. China says it is willing to discuss the issue with Japan, but asserts that certain countries are overreacting to its decision and are distorting the move.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said China established the zone to safeguard its national security and did so in line with national laws. He said the United States and Japan should regard this in an objective way and that it is not China that has changed the status quo, but Japan.
“China’s establishment of the ADIZ is to safeguard China’s national security. It is in line with national law," he said. "Japan and the U.S. should regard this in an objective way. It is not China that has changed the status quo. It is Japan.”
City University of Hong Kong political science professor Joseph Cheng said Biden is trying to maintain a difficult balance by providing assurances to Washington's long-term ally Japan, while also stressing the importance of U.S.-China relations. He said the United States would like to act as a mediator between the two countries.
"A quiet mediating role is definitely welcomed, and I do believe that the vice president will act along these lines at this stage," he said. "A formal mediating role may be a little bit difficult because traditionally Chinese authorities do not want to involve a third country, especially a major power in a bilateral dispute."
Further dialogue also could be complicated by Japan's refusal to formally recognize a territorial dispute over islands in the East China Sea, something it views as a weakening of its position.
Cheng said that while all parties understand the dangers of war and the risks that escalating tensions pose, domestic pressures make it difficult for China and Japan to compromise.
"Obviously, on the part of China and Japan, both governments are very much under the pressure of domestic nationalism, and their leaders do not want to be seen as being weak in dealing with each other," he said.
In recent days, China has made efforts to ease tensions over the zone. On the eve of Biden's arrival, the Defense Ministry released a statement stressing the area is not a no-fly zone, nor is it a sign that China is expanding its territorial airspace. The statement said surveillance in the area remains necessary, but the use of fighter jets would not be necessary in most cases.
After visiting China on Wednesday, Biden will head to South Korea on Thursday, which also has been angered by China's declared air defense zone. He is expected to meet with President Park Geun-hye and visit the demilitarized zone with the North before returning to Washington.