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China Air Defense Zone Hangs Over VP Biden’s Visit

Computer screens display a map showing the outline of China's new air defense zone in the East China on the website of the Chinese Ministry of Defense, in Beijing Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013.

Computer screens display a map showing the outline of China's new air defense zone in the East China on the website of the Chinese Ministry of Defense, in Beijing Tuesday, Nov. 26, 2013.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden travels to China next week as part of a regional tour that includes stops in South Korea and Japan. While the trip to Beijing was expected to focus on economic issues and other areas of cooperation, analysts say China's controversial new air defense zone in the East China Sea is likely to be a major topic.

Senior U.S. administration officials say Biden will directly raise the issue of the newly established air defense zone and seek to lower tensions, but will not be delivering a formal diplomatic protest over Beijing’s decision.

They say the trip will be an opportunity to speak directly with leaders in China about the decision, to voice Washington’s concerns and seek clarity about why Beijing made the move.

Jonathan Pollack, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C. says the development means less time to address other issues during the trip. He says the air defense zone will not only be discussed in Beijing, but in Tokyo, and Seoul as well.

“If he went initially on a mission in part to really understand better understand the policies emanating from the third plenum I am very confident that this will now get interjected into these conversations in a more direct way, which I can’t believe is what China would have wished to see," said Pollack.

China’s neighbors have strongly protested the decision to establish the zone in the East China Sea and militaries from the U.S., Japan and South Korea have flown flights through the zone without notifying Chinese authorities. China has warned that flights that enter the zone that fail to identify themselves could face military action.

In response, Beijing has begun its own patrol flights into the zone. Both Japan and South Korea say they are considering expanding their own air defense zones.

Pollack says that behind the rhetoric, the real concern is how the Chinese military implements its establishment of the zone.

“That’s when you enter into the realm of the potential for incidents and accidents," he said. "I don’t think anyone here seeks a conflict, but things happen, particularly when an air force such as China’s is relatively new to these kinds of activities, has very very little practical experience in the conduct of any kind of potential operations.”

China and the United States began a new effort earlier this year to redefine their relationship as one between major powers. Biden’s visit will seek to build on the informal exchange that occurred earlier this year between Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama in California.

Jin Canrong, a political scientist at Beijing’s Renmin University says that while Biden’s visit is likely to touch on China’s tensions with neighboring countries and the air defense zone, the most important issue will be overall U.S.-China relations.

Jin says the U.S. is very nervous about the possibility that China may get into conflicts with its neighbors and America’s allies in the region. He says while it is difficult to say how much time will be devoted to the issue, he believes that Biden’s main focus will remain on strengthening U.S.-China relations and improving bilateral ties.

Biden departs for Japan on Sunday and his trip will take him to Beijing and Seoul before he returns to Washington on Saturday. In Beijing, Biden will hold bilateral talks with China’s top leaders including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang.

In Japan, he will have a working dinner with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as well as meet with lawmakers. While in Seoul, Biden will receive a briefing on security on the Korean peninsula and deliver a speech at Yonsei University that will focus on the U.S. South Korea relationship as well as Washington’s approach to the region.

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