World

Biden faces diplomatic balancing act during Asia visit

Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Tokyo amid a tense dispute between Japan and China.
Y. TSUNo/AFP/Getty Images
Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Tokyo amid a tense dispute between Japan and China.

TOKYO — With Japan locked in a tense standoff with China over disputed airspace, Vice President Joe Biden arrived here late Monday for a weeklong visit to Asia intended to reassure a close ally and demand answers from a potential adversary.

Biden may also need to repair a perceived disconnect between the United States and Japan in their responses to China’s declaration of a restricted flight zone over a swath of the East China Sea that includes disputed islands claimed by both Japan and China.

The Obama administration protested the “air defense identification zone” and sent two unarmedB-52s on a mission through the zone to underscore its displeasure. But as a safety precaution, federal regulators advised US civilian flights to identify themselves before entering the airspace, in compliance with the Chinese rules.

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That was viewed by some in Japan as a mixed message, since the Japanese government had told its airlines to ignore the Chinese demand. Japanese newspapers began worrying about “allies no longer walking in lockstep,” and government officials sought clarification from Washington.

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The State Department said that the advice did not mean that the United States was recognizing China’s self-declared air-defense zone. US officials have told the Japanese that the FAA decision was a safety recommendation, not an order.

Administration officials said Biden would leave no doubt in Japan or China that the United States views the Chinese move as a provocation.

Still, the official said, Biden would not deliver a formal diplomatic protest to Beijing, where he is to meet with President Xi Jinping on Wednesday. His aides are determined not to allow the matter to swallow up his trip, during which the vice president also hopes to build support for a trans-Pacific trade pact and coordinate a response to the nuclear threat in North Korea.

Biden arrived in Tokyo on Monday evening and was met by Caroline Kennedy, the new US ambassador to Japan.