Biden’s 330-Minute Balancing Act in China

Why didn't Shinzo Abe urge Joe Biden to clamp down on Beijing? Because Japan's prime minister knew the vice president wouldn't.
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Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden inside the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. (Lintao Zhang/Reuters)

BEIJING — On Wednesday, fresh off a visit with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Joe Biden spent five and a half hours in Beijing with Chinese President Xi Jinping over a series of meetings and dinner. The marathon diplomacy capped a delicate effort by the vice president this week to tamp down Japan's anger over provocative Chinese actions in the East China Sea while not coming down too hard on China.

Tensions have been growing in Asia among a number of key regional players—particularly Japan and China, which have been squaring off over competing sovereignty claims to five tiny, uninhabited islands that the Chinese call the Diaoyu and the Japanese call the Senkaku. Last week, China raised the blood pressure of Japan's prime minister—and many a commercial airline pilot—by unilaterally imposing an Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ, that overlaps with territory Japan and South Korea also claim.

With Biden already scheduled to make a trip this week to these same three countries, the vice president became the obvious Obama administration official to referee the dispute and issue guidance about America’s perspective on China’s actions and possible countermoves by others in the area.  

Many observers in Japan—and some hawks in the United States—wanted to see Biden draw a red line in Beijing over China’s ADIZ and demand it be revoked (Japan, South Korea, and the United States all maintain ADIZs around their own shores). But they were disappointed. 

Japan's prime minister, on the other hand, had a shrewder understanding of the geopolitics at play in the dispute. In a carefully constructed diplomatic effort, Abe did not ask Biden to call for a rollback of China’s ADIZ because, according to a senior official in Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Abe knew that Biden would not make that request of Xi Jinping, and didn't want the world to see any light between Japan and America on the issue.  

Why wouldn't Biden demand that the Chinese step back from a move that senior administration officials have called “potentially dangerous” and “provocative”? Insiders say the vice president and President Obama didn’t want to draw a red line in an already-tense mess when there are options beyond escalating it into a full-blown conflict—and especially when China would likely balk at such a demand.

So into the fray Biden has moved, counseling all parties to contribute to regional stability rather than undermining it and harming their own economic prospects and security. On Tuesday, Biden reaffirmed America’s support of Japan, calling the island nation the “cornerstone” of America’s security in the Pacific. He expressed support for a Japanese call to create a hotline between Tokyo and Beijing and broadened the initiative conceptually to include regional crisis management mechanisms and infrastructure, ostensibly bringing South Korea into the mix to preempt “accidents and miscalculations.”

While in Tokyo, Biden called on China to not create more ADIZs and to keep Chinese fighter jets from intercepting other aircraft. White House officials reported that the U.S. and Japan will not recognize China’s ADIZ and will not share flight identification information with China for U.S. and Japanese military 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 air defense identification zones). Senior Obama administration officials have stated that while commercial U.S. aircraft will provide Chinese authorities with their flight information, this does not represent a shift in policy or official recognition of China’s ADIZ.

When U.S. officials granted me and other journalists access to a portion of the meeting between Biden and Xi, the vice president seemed solemn, emphasizing the importance of his friendship with the Chinese president (the two have previously met in Chengdu and Los Angeles) and how a new approach to great power relations, which Xi has advocated, requires trust and understanding the motives of the other side. 

“They covered every single topic in the U.S.-China relationship,” said one senior administration official. On the ADIZ, Biden “indicated that we don’t recognize the zone, that we have deep concerns.” He also told Xi that the United States is “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,” adding that “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."

In the past, America’s role as a guarantor of security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region may have created a moral hazard problem wherein nationalist leaders could shake their fists at each other over deep historical grievances without fearing the outbreak of war. As he travels through Asia, Biden appears to be subtly breaking with that state of affairs, pushing countries in the region to not free ride on American security but rather collectively develop a more stable and resilient infrastructure to handle crises. The goal, it seems, is to not only manage conflict but also build a future of what Biden called “limitless benefits.”

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Steve Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He writes frequently about politics and foreign affairs. More

Clemons is a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New America Foundation, a centrist think tank in Washington, D.C., where he previously served as executive vice president. He writes and speaks frequently about the D.C. political scene, foreign policy, and national security issues, as well as domestic and global economic-policy challenges.

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