(CNSNews.com) – China’s unilateral establishment of an air defense zone over the East China Sea is expected to feature prominently during Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to the region beginning Monday, but the Obama administration’s messages have caused some uncertainty.
Biden plans to visit Japan, China and South Korea on a trip intended to underline America’s commitment to the region.
“The trip will reaffirm our enduring presence as a Pacific power, promote our economic and trade interests, and underscore our commitment to rebalancing U.S. foreign policy towards the Asia-Pacific,” his office said shortly after Biden took off from Andrews Air Force Base on Sunday afternoon.
After China on November 23 announced the creation of an “air defense identification zone” (ADIZ) over a large area including islands administered by Japan and claimed by China, Tokyo instructed Japanese airlines not to comply with China’s requirement that aircraft entering the zone identify themselves and file flight plans.
The U.S. expressed support for its ally, and then pointedly flew two B-52 long-range bombers through the ADIZ three days later without informing the Chinese beforehand. The Pentagon described the flight as a pre-planned training mission that passed without incident.
But on Friday, the State Department issued a statement in response to questions about the ADIZ that raised some eyebrows in Japan. It said that the U.S. government “generally expects that U.S. carriers operating internationally will operate consistent with” advisories issued by foreign countries regarding potential hazards applying to a flight route.
At the same time, the statement said that the advice “does not indicate U.S. government acceptance of China’s requirements for operating in the newly declared ADIZ.”
CNN subsequently reported that United, American and Delta have all begun to notify Chinese authorities of their flight plans in the zone.
Chinese state media characterized the State Department advisory as a partial backdown by the United States.
“Observers consider this a softened gesture following the provocative challenge of sending two bombers into the zone,” said the Communist Party-affiliated Global Times, calling the U.S. guidance to civil aviation “a pragmatic subtle shift.”
Japanese media also noted that the U.S. advice now appeared to differ from Japan’s decision to specifically ask carriers not to obey the Chinese stipulations. South Korea, which is also directly affected by the ADIZ, has also said its aircraft will not comply
But Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe played down any potential differences with Washington, saying Sunday that he and Biden would have in-depth discussions on the ADIZ situation and that the U.S. and Japan would “address it in close coordination with each other.”
Abe told reporters that Japan would “resolutely but calmly deal with Beijing’s attempt to change the status quo using its power, with a resolve to unyieldingly defend Japan’s territorial land, waters and airspace,” Kyodo news agency reported.
In an interview aired Sunday, Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera told the NHK broadcaster that Japan would not accede to China’s demands but would handle the matter “with a resolute attitude.”
He also warned that China may try a similar move in the South China Sea – where it has several more sovereignty disputes over resource-rich areas with neighbors including the Philippines and Vietnam – and said the international community should not allow China to act in such a unilateral manner.
The U.S. says it does not take sides in the sovereignty dispute over the East China Sea islands, which Japan says were uninhabited before it first incorporated them into its territory in 1895, while China dates its claim back to the 15th century Ming dynasty.
As the islands are under Japanese control, however, the U.S. says they fall within the scope of its treaty obligations with Japan, and specifically an article committing it to act in the event of an armed attack “in the territories under the administration of Japan.”
On Friday, the Chinese air force announced that it scrambled fighter jets “in an emergency response,” to identify and verify two U.S. reconnaissance planes and well as several Japanese aircraft flying in the ADIZ.
Biden is visiting Japan on a trip initially billed as focusing on trade issues, and specifically on the ambitious but increasingly controversial Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement, which the administration has been hoping would be wrapped up by a year-end deadline. Another round of negotiations is scheduled to begin in Singapore on Saturday.
The TPP is meant to be a centerpiece of the administration’s “pivot,” a declared rebalancing from the Middle East towards Asia that has faced several setbacks, most recently when President Obama canceled a trip to the region in October because of the federal government shutdown.
The canceled trip, which would have included several key multilateral gatherings and opportunities to push the TPP talks ahead, prompted fresh speculation about the future of the touted policy.
In a November 20 speech in Washington, National Security Advisor Susan Rice said the Asia rebalance “remains a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s foreign policy” and announced that the president will now visit next April.
The TPP, which involves 12 negotiating partners – including Japan but not South Korea or China – has run into difficulties in Congress, where some Republicans and Democrats are signaling opposition to administration calls for fast-track negotiating authority.
One of the issues Biden will be trying to reassure the two allies, Japan and South Korea, during this week’s visit is that budget problems and policy distractions in Washington will not affect the administration’s commitment to the region, especially at a time when China appears to be testing it.