Joe Biden, the US vice-president, yesterday sharply criticised China’s declaration of a new air defence zone over the East China Sea, but stopped short of joining Japanese leaders in demanding the zone be scrapped.
In Tokyo on an Asian tour that will take him to Beijing tomorrow, Mr Biden sought to reassure Japan, the US’s most important military ally in Asia, that it would defend the country against any overt aggression from an increasingly assertive China.
But even as he reiterated that the US was “deeply concerned” China’s declaration of a wide air defence identification zone (ADIZ) last month risked “accidents and miscalculations”, he did not back Japan’s call for it to be scrapped.
“I told the prime minister that we will remain steadfast in our alliance commitments,” Mr Biden told a news conference after meeting Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister. He also urged Japan and China to improve communication to avoid escalating tensions.
Japan and China are locked in a stand-off over a group of Japanese-administered islands, called the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China. These fall within the Chinese ADIZ, which covers a large part of the East China Sea and overlaps with a similar decades-old zone established by Japan, as well as perimeters maintained by Taiwan and South Korea.
Mr Biden is facing the difficult task of reassuring US allies while avoiding provoking Beijing or making demands that Chinese leaders would be unwilling or unable to meet – whether out of a surfeit of confidence or a fear of appearing weak and provoking domestic criticism.
The Obama administration’s handling of the ADIZ issue is sure to be seen as part of a broader test of its seriousness about remaining a strong power in the Pacific as China rises. The White House announced a “pivot” to Asia two years ago but critics have questioned whether the US was serious about putting its might behind the rhetoric.
Before Mr Biden’s comments, a state department spokeswoman in Washington called on China to “rescind the procedures” attached to the zone. Beijing has warned it could take “defensive emergency measures” against aircraft that enter without sending flight plans to the Chinese authorities, including aircraft that do not intend to land in or fly over China.
Other countries with ADIZs, including the US and Japan, typically exempt from identification procedures aircraft that are passing through.
Japan has gone further in its demands. Japanese officials told local media ahead of Mr Biden’s visit that they hoped the US would join them in calling for the removal of China’s zone.
Itsunori Onodera, the defence minister, on Friday called for the zone to be “rescinded as soon as possible”
The US flew B-52 bombers through the zone last week to demonstrate it considered the area to be international air space. The Pentagon is also deploying new advanced surveillance aircraft to Japan, which will monitor submarines in the increasingly contested waters around China.
Still, some in Japan were disappointed when Washington told US commercial airlines to abide by the regulations for safety reasons, in contrast to Tokyo’s request to Japanese airlines not to comply with the rules.