- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 27, 2013

As tensions rise in a standoff with China over a disputed chain of islands, Obama administration officials said Wednesday that Vice President Joseph R. Biden will convey U.S. concerns to Chinese leaders during a trip that begins next week.

Mr. Biden will meet separately with the leaders of China, South Korea and Japan on the long-planned trip that begins Sunday. But the visit is taking on heightened expectations after China denounced a flight by two U.S. B-52 bombers Tuesday over islands in the East China Sea without first alerting Beijing.

The flight came just days after China announced an expanded air-defense zone around the uninhabited islands. Japan is in a long-running dispute with China over control of the islands.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told his Japanese counterpart in a phone call Wednesday that China’s establishment of the air zone “is a potentially destabilizing unilateral action designed to change the status quo in the region, and raises the risk of misunderstanding and miscalculation,” a Pentagon spokesman said.

Mr. Hagel commended Japan “for exercising appropriate restraint” in response to China’s actions. The defense secretary “reaffirmed longstanding U.S. policy” that the U.S.-Japan mutual defense treaty applies to the disputed islands “and pledged to consult closely with Japan on efforts to avoid unintended incidents,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy criticized China in her first speech in her new job, saying its action “only serves to increase tensions in the region.”

“Unilateral actions like those taken by China with their announcement of an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone undermine security and constitute an attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea,” she said in Tokyo.

A senior administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Mr. Biden “will have an opportunity … to make clear to the Chinese leadership that we have concerns and that we have questions.”

“The underlying point here is that the strains caused by a series of actions by China in its relations with its Asian neighbors is not a good thing,” the official said.

The two Asian powers have a long dispute over the islands, which sit in the middle of a seabed potentially rich with oil, gas and other mineral deposits.

The Chinese defense ministry said Wednesday that “China has the capability to exercise effective control” over the area.

China’s military announced on its website early Wednesday that its navy’s sole aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, was heading toward the South China Sea. To get there, the aircraft carrier group has to first go through the East China Sea.

Mr. Hagel said that China’s creation of the new air defense zone would “not in any way change how the United States conducts military operations in the region.”

Chinese military officials have portrayed the claim to the new zone as a defensive measure to guard against “potential air threats.”

“We’re talking about international air space,” said the senior Obama administration official. “We’re not talking about overflights of sovereign territory … There is a need for China to clarify its intentions, to answer a number of questions that this move generates, both as a civil aviation matter, but also as a strategic matter.”

In 2001, a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. Navy plane monitoring China’s communications over the South China Sea. The Chinese pilot was killed, and the U.S plane made an emergency landing on China’s Hainan island. China held the U.S. crew for 11 days until the U.S. expressed regret for the death of the Chinese pilot.

Mr. Biden will travel first to Japan to meet with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who’s had friction both with China and with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, that nation’s first female president. The vice president will participate with Ms. Kennedy in a series of events to highlight “the role of women in the Japanese economy,” an administration official said.

In China, Mr. Biden will meet with President Xi Jinping and other leaders for talks including the disputed airspace and a range of global issues. Aides said Mr. Biden knows the Chinese leader better than almost any other head of state.

The vice president will conclude his trip in Seoul, where he’ll meet with Mrs. Park and Prime Minister Jung Hong-won. He’ll deliver keynote remarks at Yonsei University on the U.S.-Korea relationship and on U.S. policy towards the Asia Pacific region. Mr. Biden will return to Washington on Dec. 8.

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