In Tokyo, Biden drawn into China air zone dispute

Hours after touching down in Asia on a long-planned trip, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is being pulled into a messy territorial spat between China and its neighbors.

Biden is meeting in Tokyo on Tuesday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose government is pressing the U.S. to more actively take Japan’s side in an escalating dispute over China’s new air defense zone above a set of contested islands in the East China Sea.

biden_small In Tokyo, Biden drawn into China air zone dispute

Although the U.S. has joined Japan and other allies in refusing to recognize the zone, Washington has treaded carefully, wary of creating a new fault line in its relationship with China just as the U.S. is pursuing a new era of economic cooperation with Beijing.

Whether Biden and Abe appear to be in lockstep will be closely watched by China, as well as other Asian nations worried that the new defense zone may portend further steps by China to assert control in the region. On Monday, China’s ambassador to the Philippines claimed China has a sovereign right to establish a similar zone over the South China Sea, where China and the Philippines are locked in another long-running territorial dispute.

The feud promises to trail Biden throughout his weeklong trip to Asia — a tour intended to affirm Washington’s continued interest in upping its presence in the region, in part to counter China’s growing influence.

“We remain deeply concerned by the announcement,” Biden said in a written interview with Japan’s Asahi Shimbun newspaper. “I believe this latest incident underscores the need for agreement between China and Japan to establish crisis management and confidence-building measures to lower tensions.”

The zone covers more than 600 miles from north to south, above international waters separating China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. China says all aircraft entering the zone must notify Chinese authorities beforehand or face unspecified defensive measures.

Whether commercial airliners should abide by that requirement has emerged as a point of conflict between the U.S. and Japan in recent days.

Reluctant to cede any ground, Tokyo has urged Japanese commercial flights not to notify China before flying through the zone. Word that the U.S. had advised American commercial carriers to comply rankled leaders in Tokyo, who are hoping a united front with the U.S. will increase pressure on Beijing to reverse course.

Pushing back on the notion there was any disagreement between the U.S. and Japan, senior Obama administration officials said Tuesday that the U.S. never told American commercial carriers to comply specifically with China’s demands. The officials, who weren’t authorized to comment by name and demanded anonymity, said the Federal Aviation Administration merely reaffirmed existing policy that pilots should comply with such instructions anywhere in the world.

After a working dinner with Abe on Tuesday night, Biden will fly to Beijing on Wednesday to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping. He’ll then travel Thursday to South Korea — another U.S. ally at odds with China over the air defense zone.

Japan, which claims the islands as its own, is concerned that any acquiescence to China’s demands will allow China to slowly solidify its claim to the tiny islands and the strategically important waters that surround them. The United States sees rising tensions between China and its neighbors as a threat to U.S. interests, and is concerned that the tense atmosphere increases the likelihood of an incident in the air spiraling out of control.

U.S. officials said Biden will raise Washington’s concerns directly with China’s leaders and tell them America’s commitment to its allies is beyond question. Although the U.S. doesn’t take a position on the islands’ sovereignty, U.S. officials acknowledge that Japan administers the islands, meaning U.S. treaty obligations to defend Japan could come into play.

Also on Biden’s agenda in Tokyo is a major trade agreement with Japan and 10 other nations that the U.S. hopes to complete by the end of 2013. Japan’s concerns about removing steep agricultural tariffs and increasing access to its auto markets have become flashpoints in those negotiations. In another potential complication, Japan said Monday that its economy minister involved in the trade talks has been hospitalized for tests.