Administration officials briefing reporters Wednesday sought to play down the growing strains over China’s recent declaration of an air-defense identification zone over the East China Sea.
The Pentagon has called the zone destabilizing and vowed to ignore it. On Tuesday the Pacific Command snubbed China’s new air-control rules by flying two B-52 bombers through the zone without informing the Chinese in advance.
“You know, the vice president of the United States is not traveling to Beijing to deliver a demarche, let alone on a single issue,” one official said of the maritime dispute that threatens to escalate into a shooting incident, against either aircraft or ships.
Mr. Biden is expected to get an earful from Chinese President Xi Jinping during the visit over the United States’ vocal opposition to the air-defense zone that the Pentagon has said is increasing the risk of conflict by altering the status quo on maritime disputes.
One administration official boasted to reporters that Mr. Biden has a close personal relationship with the Chinese leader, who is emerging as more of a communist ideologue than several of his predecessors. Mr. Biden “knows President Xi as well or better than probably any American and possibly, virtually any leader,” the official said.
Mr. Biden will use the visit to discuss “an emerging pattern of behavior by China that is unsettling to China’s own neighbors and raising questions about how China operates in international space, and how China deals with areas of disagreement with his neighbors,” the official said.
“Clearly, the visit to China creates an opportunity for the vice president to discuss directly with policymakers in Beijing this issue, to convey our concerns directly and to seek clarity regarding the Chinese intentions in making this move at this time,” he added.
The harshest expression of concern one official could muster to describe the latest dispute was to say strains on relations caused by China are “not a good thing.”
The officials also would not say if the vice president will demand that China roll back the air-defense identification zone that conflicts with Japan’s control over the disputed Senkaku islands.
The U.S. comments reflect the conciliatory policies of the administration toward China that Washington has tried to view as its close partner. China, meanwhile, in recent years has stepped up an assertively anti-U.S. posture in many of its public statements and actions.
In Beijing on Wednesday, a Defense Ministry spokesman appeared to ignore the fact that Chinese jets failed to intercept the B-52s that flew unescorted from Guam through the East China Sea on a training mission.
The spokesman, Geng Yansheng, made no mention of interceptors and instead said, “Chinese troops carried out a full course of surveillance and timely identification and ascertained the type of the U.S. side’s aircraft” as they flew within 120 miles of the Senkakus, which China calls the Diaoyu.
At the Foreign Ministry, a spokesman suggested China’s military is prepared to shoot down intruding aircraft in the future.
“We will respond accordingly depending on the different circumstances and the threat levels that we may face,” spokesman Qin Gang said Wednesday.