Editorial: U.S. vice president visits China, expresses concerns over air defense zone

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden visited China yesterday and met with President Xi Jinping. Mr. Biden expressed his concerns over China’s recent establishment of an air defense zone over the East China Sea, which includes the Senkaku Islands.

Before his visit, it was reported that the United States would urge China to refrain from enforcing the air defense zone. It appears that Mr. Biden encouraged Mr. Xi to establish a crisis-management mechanism and create a channel for friendly dialogue between Japan and China.

The move made by China to unilaterally alter the status quo of the East China Sea is unacceptable. With many nations showing concern over China’s action, the fact that the United States is clearly expressing its commitment to U.S.-Japan relations is significant.

However, it is worrying that there seems to be a difference in the degree of resolve over this issue between the U.S. and Japanese governments. The two governments should work more closely together to address the basic dispute over the Senkaku Islands.

What deserves attention is, prior to Mr. Biden’s visit, the United States had stated that it would urge China to refrain from enforcing the air defense zone. Initially, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe intended to call on China to withdraw the air defense zone. However, the word “withdraw” was not used in the meeting between Mr. Abe and Mr. Biden the day before yesterday. This gives the impression that Mr. Abe has taken a step backward.

The United States may have decided not to demand this withdrawal for fear of provoking China, which has already adopted a stiffer tone toward Japan. Instead, the United States has apparently chosen to deal with the operation of the defense zone itself.

The gap in posture between the the U.S. and Japanese governments is also demonstrated clearly in the way they have dealt with their civilian airlines. While the United States is condoning China’s demand that U.S. airlines submit their flight plans, Japan has asked its airlines not to submit such plans.

If the governments continue to take different stances toward this problem, Japanese airlines will remain in limbo. The two governments should continue to talk and come up with a shared strategy for addressing this issue.

In the talk with Mr. Biden, China reportedly explained its basic stance concerning the air defense zone. Japan, with no solution within its reach, can only assert calmly that China’s move is illegitimate while seeking closer cooperation with the international community.

Beneath the gap in posture between the U.S. and Japanese governments lies the softer line that the United States is currently taking toward China.

The Obama administration considers its bilateral relations with China to be among its most important ties. The United States is apparently hoping to deepen these ties with China, which is rapidly gaining economic strength, and create a more mutually beneficial relationship.

With regard to the air defense zone, the United States, while presenting Japan in a good light, wants to avoid getting too deeply involved in the Japan-China conflict.

At the same time, Japan is taking a harder-line stance toward China by seeking to strengthen its relationship with the United States.

How such issues involving China will be handled now becomes a major challenge for Japan’s National Security Council, which was established yesterday. The national security strategy, which will be formulated by the end of this month, will include Japan’s basic stance toward China’s establishment of an air defense zone over the East China Sea.

With the United States displaying a different attitude toward China, can Japan respond with effective countermeasures?

If the Japanese government continues to rely on the U.S.-Japan alliance, as it has always done, the nation’s foreign policy may arrive at an impasse.

The Japanese government must hold a mid- to long-term perspective in devising a strategy to rebuild Japan-China relations and strengthen its own diplomatic power.

(Originally published on December 5, 2013)