BEIJING — Chinese leaders pushed back at visiting Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday over what they assert is their right to control a wide swath of airspace in the bitterly contested East China Sea. But the Chinese also indicated they had not decided how aggressively to enforce their so-called air defense identification zone, which has ignited tensions with Japan.
Shuttling from one feuding neighbor to the other, Biden arrived from Tokyo to urge China’s president, Xi Jinping, to show restraint in the restricted zone, which Biden said the United States regarded as illegitimate and a provocation.
After 5½ hours of meetings, in which Biden laid out the US case against China’s action and Xi made a forceful counterargument, senior administration officials said, “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.”
Xi’s response suggests China and Japan could manage a standoff that had threatened to escalate dangerously, with China scrambling fighter jets to intercept Japanese airliners flying off the Chinese coast.
In remarks midway through the meetings, Biden did not refer to the dispute, but said the relationship between the United States and China “ultimately has to be based on trust, and a positive notion about the motive of one another.”
Xi, who cultivated unusually personal ties to Biden when he was China’s vice president, sounded an upbeat note about the broad relationship, though he conceded “regional hot-spot issues keep cropping up.”
He welcomed Biden as “my old friend” and said nothing directly about the air zone.
For Biden, however, China’s sudden action last month upended what was meant to be a tour of Asia with a wide-ranging agenda. Instead, he has had to walk a fine line: defending an ally and rebuking a potential adversary, while preventing a spat over a clump of islands in the East China Sea from mushrooming into a wider conflict.
A day earlier in Tokyo, Biden condemned China’s action as an effort to “unilaterally change the status quo” and said it had raised “the risk of accidents and miscalculation.”
Biden stopped short of calling on China to rescind the zone, something it is unlikely to do, given the nationalist sentiments that have been animated by its standoff with Japan. The US military has ignored the zone, dispatching B-52 bombers last week to fly through it.
Shortly after Biden arrived, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said the new air defense identification zone was a fact of life.