Leading up to Vice President Joseph R. Biden’s visit to Beijing this week, senior U.S. diplomats have engaged in a series of direct conversations with their Chinese counterparts to protest the Chinese military’s attempt to carve out a new air defense zone in the East China Sea.
The first conversation came Nov. 23 — apparently just hours after China had announced the new zone — when Daniel Russel, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, raised U.S. concerns over the development to Cui Tiankai, China’s ambassador to the U.S.
The State Department declined Tuesday to characterize whether that discussion, or another more high-level exchange on Nov. 29 between Deputy Secretary of State William J. Burns and Chinese Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Liu Zhenimin, had served as secret back channels to defuse tensions that have appeared to mount between the two sides in the past week.
“I’m not going to put a colorful adjective on them,” deputy State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said. “What I will say is that throughout all of our engagements with China on this issue, we’ve made it clear that the U.S. will not recognize” the air defense zone.
She added that U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke and other senior officials at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing also “remain in close contact with senior Chinese counterparts” and are “reiterating U.S. concerns.”
The talks have taken place behind the scenes at a time of increasingly aggressive public posturing between Washington and Beijing, and likely have set up the framework for Mr. Biden’s highly anticipated meeting Wednesday with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
The two men likely will attempt to ease international fears of potential military clashes between the U.S. and China. Such fears have escalated since last week when the Pentagon flew two B-52 bombers into the new air defense zone, which Beijing said it was creating around a chain of islands that have stood at the center of a territorial dispute between China and Japan.
While the bombers were unarmed, the Pentagon’s sudden dispatch of the planes was seen as a show of support for close U.S. ally Japan and a direct challenge to China’s claim of exclusive control of the airspace over the islands, known in China as the Diaoyu and in Japan as the Senkaku.
Chinese authorities responded last week by saying they had closely tracked the U.S. bombers and arguing that Beijing was fully within its right to create the air defense zone. China’s military reiterated the claim Tuesday and suggested that Washington has overreacted to the creation of the zone, known in national security circles as an Air Defense Identification Zone.
“It is not a no-fly zone, and will not affect the freedom of overflight, based on international laws, of other countries’ aircraft,” Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yanshen said in a statement published by Beijing’s official Xinhua news agency.
“The zone does not aim at any specific country or target, nor does it constitute a threat to any country or region,” he said, claiming that the zone merely serves as an “early warning” system over international waters to defend against possible intrusions into Chinese air space
The remarks appeared aimed at the U.S. and Japan, where the zone’s creation has been perceived as a threat to Japanese claims of sovereignty over the islands in the East China Sea.
The Obama administration has spent recent days attempting to show support for the Japanese view. Mr. Biden spent Monday and Tuesday in Tokyo and, as he arrived, the Pentagon dispatched the first of six top-tech submarine-hunting jets to its Okinawa post near the East China Sea.
Appearing beside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday, Mr. Biden characterized China’s creation of the air defense zone as an “attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea.”
Adding that the U.S. is “deeply concerned” by the development, the vice president said Beijing’s move “underscores the need for crisis management mechanisms and effective channels of communication between China and Japan to reduce the risk of escalation.”