It’s a good thing that Vice President Joe Biden, whose undiplomatic spontaneity has on occasion stunned political allies as well as adversaries, is well grounded in international affairs. It’s also good that he is acquainted with and gets along with Xi Jinping, China’s president and Communist Party leader.
But as important as the latter is, we hope Mr. Biden is sufficiently blunt during his meetings today and Thursday with President Xi and other top Chinese officials on the subject of China’s recent claim to an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea.
He set the stage for continued U.S. resistance to the air defense zone Tuesday in Japan. In a meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Mr. Biden reiterated that the United States is “deeply concerned by the attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea.” Moreover, in a message aimed at China as well as Japan, he added that “the United States looks to our alliance with Japan as the cornerstone of stability and security in East Asia.”
China has shown no sign of backing down on its air defense zone, which covers much of the East China Sea. The United States, Japan and South Korea, which Mr. Biden will visit next, all have defied China’s demands that their aircraft identify themselves and give their flight plans. (American commercial airliners, however, apparently are complying with China’s demands.) The test will come if and when China forces down another nation’s aircraft for not heeding China’s demands over what most nations consider international air space.
The situation over the air defense identification zone is unfortunate also because it detracts from the original purpose of this trip, which was scheduled months ago: the furtherance of economic ties with China, Japan and South Korea. That goal is all the more pressing because as a result of the government shutdown in October, President Barack Obama canceled his trip to the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.
Mr. Biden’s visit to East Asia this week could also have domestic political repercussions. He has expressed interest in, but hasn’t declared, his candidacy for president in 2016, and stands to benefit simply from appearing presidential with heads of state. That probably wouldn’t be enough to vault him ahead of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in Democrats’ minds, but it can help him if she does not run.
Much more important, however, is succeeding on what is clearly a delicate mission.