Vice President Biden has been thrust into the center of an escalating standoff with China that is testing him on the global stage ahead of a possible presidential run in 2016.
President Obama dispatched Biden to Asia, where he will deliver a strong warning to China for declaring an air defense zone over islands that are also claimed by U.S. ally Japan.
“This is an opportunity for Vice President Biden to raise our concerns directly with policymakers in Beijing and to seek clarity regarding the Chinese intentions in making this move at this time,” White House spokesman Jay Carney said Monday. “We do not accept the legitimacy of China’s requirements.”
Biden has long fashioned himself a foreign policy pro, and the former senator’s decades of experience in that arena was one of the main things Obama cited after choosing him as his running mate in 2008.
With Secretary of State John Kerry tied up in Middle East politics, it has fallen to Biden to play the heavy with China — a role he is likely to embrace with gusto.
“From his perspective it’s probably a little too exciting,” said Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“A few days ago it looked like it would be about advancing the U.S. agenda, cooperation, multilateralism — and now all of a sudden it’s turned into an exercise in crisis management,” said Economy.
The vice president’s trip to Japan, China and South Korea had been meant to reassure the region that the Obama administration remains committed to its “pivot to Asia.” At the top of the agenda was trade, improving U.S relations with China and implementing a free trade agreement with South Korea.
That agenda went out the window 10 days ago with the airspace decree, which exposed the tensions that are being produced by China’s rapid rise as an economic and military force.
China demanded that flights over a series of deserted islands — called the Diaoyus in Chinese and the Senkakus in Japanese — inform Beijing of their flight plans. Since then, China has dispatched fighter jets to monitor U.S. and Japanese military flights in the area.
The U.S. denounced the order, and sent two B-52 bombers through the area, without informing China, in a show of defiance.
Beijing also has territorial disputes in the South China Sea, including with U.S. allies Taiwan and the Philippines, with each side blaming the other for the escalation.
It’s against that backdrop of regional conflict that Biden arrived in Tokyo Monday night to begin a series of high-level visits.
During a press availability with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday, Biden said that he brought a message from Obama that the "U.S.-Japanese security arrangement is the cornerstone of security not merely in the Pacific basin but the cornerstone upon which our security is built for the next 20 years or more."
“The security environment has increased severely so your visit to Japan is truly a timely one,” Abe told Biden, according to a pool report. “I look forward to reinforcing the alliance."
After his meeting with Abe, Biden will visit with Japanese lawmakers.
His first challenge is to reassure the Japanese that the White House isn’t abandoning them after the Federal Aviation Administration advised American carriers to inform China of their flight plans over the islands — the opposite guidance Japan has given to its civilian fleet.
“I was taken aback when I heard this,” Yukio Okamoto, a well-known former diplomat who served in Washington, told Japan’s public broadcaster NHK over the weekend, according to The Wall Street Journal. “I can’t think of any case like this in the past where the U.S. took a step that hurt Japan’s interests over an issue related directly to Japan’s national security in a way visible to the whole world.”
The State Department denies any rift, and says the advisory was made to ensure the safety of passengers and aircrews and “did not convey that the U.S. government supported this effort,” spokeswoman Jen Psaki said Monday.
The White House has made use of Biden in China before, sending him to Beijing in 2011 to meet his then-counterpart Xi Jinping as he was being groomed for China’s presidency. They’re hoping that visit pays dividends now.
A senior administration official said Biden has forged “extraordinarily close and warm relations” with the leaders of all three countries that he will be visiting.
“I would say he knows President Xi as well or better than probably any American, and possibly virtually any leader,” said the official. “So this matters. And I think that what you will see is that this relationship enables him to conduct a high-level and a high-quality dialogue that’s particularly valuable today among these three countries.”
Economy said Biden is the only person able to stand in for Obama at a delicate juncture in U.S.-China relations.
“I wouldn’t read this as the vice president claiming Asia for himself, but rather who can be most effective at one point in time,” she said. “He is the only one who can legitimately substitute for the president [and] will be able to communicate with Xi Jinping at a level that the secretary cannot.”
Her advice to Biden: Stand firm.
“The most important thing the vice president can do is what we’ve done, which is to sort of draw the line in the sand and say: We’re not going to accept this,” she said. “I think it’s critical. Because if you give an inch, you will lose a mile.”
— Justin Sink contributed.
— This report was originally published on Monday at 6:58 p.m. and last updated on Tuesday at 7:09 a.m.