Biden's trip continues US engagement in Asia-Pacific

Updated: 2013-12-02 10:23

By Chen Weihua in Washington (China Daily)

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US Vice-President Joe Biden is to arrive in Japan today (Monday) for his weeklong trip to the region to reassure the US commitment to its rebalancing strategy after President Barack Obama has been entangled in domestic politics and the Middle East in the past months.

The trip will also take Biden to China on Nov 4-5 before winding up the three-nation tour in the Republic of Korea.

White House officials have emphasized that this is a long-planned visit and part of a continuum of US engagement in the Asia-Pacific.

"The trip will underscore the administration’s strong commitment to the rebalance and to our enduring role as a Pacific power," a senior administration official told a conference call last week.

The US commitment has been called into question after Obama canceled his trip to several Asian nations and regional summits in early October due to the partial federal government shutdown. Although the shutdown ended in mid October, Obama has found himself struggling with the aftermath of the dysfunctional Obamacare website, which threatens a key legacy of his presidency.

To reassure the US commitment to the Asia-Pacific region, National Security Advisor Susan Rice spoke of US future in Asia at Georgetown University on Nov 20, when she announced that Obama will make a trip to the region next April.

"It is an opportunity to give lift to our treaty alliances and to advance our very important relationship with China," the senior administration official said of upcoming Biden’s trip.

Besides sending a broad message to the region, Biden also hopes to focus on a number of specific and urgent issues, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and the tensions in the South and East China Seas arising from maritime territorial disputes, especially after China declared its East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) on Nov 23.

US Secretary of State John Kerry and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel condemned China’s announcement and said the US would not recognize the zone. The US also flew two B-52 bombers to the zone early this week to show its defiance, although Pentagon also said the flight was planned long time ago as routine military drills.

Japan and ROK had also refused to recognize the zone, which overlaps with Japan’s ADIZ over the disputed Diaoyu Islands in East China Sea.

Both Japan and ROK have also flown planes over China’s ADIZ without prior reporting to the Chinese authorities. In return, China said it has dispatched air force jets to identify the planes from the US, Japan and ROK.

The US, however, advised its commercial airlines on Friday to comply with China’s demand to report any flights passing through China’s ADIZ.

Senior US administration officials expressed that the visit to China will create an opportunity for Biden to discuss directly with Chinese leaders on the issue, to convey US concerns directly and to seek clarity regarding the Chinese intentions in making the move this time.

The US worries that it might be drawn into an unintended military conflict with China due to its treaty obligation to Japan. It also feels deeply upset that Japan and ROK, its two key allies, also have a bad relationship arising from their maritime territorial dispute and World War II experience.

The White House official stressed that Biden will pursue a broad agenda of bilateral, regional and global issues on his trip.

Obama had hoped to wind up the TPP talks by the end of this year, but talks have been slowed down by the 12 nations haggling over their own interests as well as the US Congress and other advocacy groups.

The US hopes the establishment of such high-level free-trade agreement in a region which covers 40 percent of the world’s economy would cement its economic leadership.

Besides the US, the 12 TPP negotiating nations include Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.

In a latest move on Friday, the ROK government expressed its interest in joining the TPP talks.

China, which was suspicious of the US intention in dominating the TPP talks, has also said months ago that it wanted to know more about process. Rice, the US National Security Advisor, said the US welcomes any nation that is willing to live up to the high standards of this agreement to join and share the benefits of TPP. "And that includes China," she said.

Meanwhile, China, Japan and ROK had been engaged last week in their third round of FTA talks held in Tokyo. The three also participated in the talks for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership among 16 nations, which also includes the 10 ASEAN nations and Australia, New Zealand and India.

During the trip, Biden will consult with three East Asia nations about the denuclearization Korean Peninsula, especially after Thursday’s report that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea might have been trying to reactivate its nuclear site.

However, International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano, who reported the observation, said it is not possible to conclusively determine whether the reactor has been restarted due to the lack of access to the site.

DPRK has expressed its willingness to resume the Six-Party Talks without preconditions. But the US insisted that any resumption of the talk should start with DPRK abiding by its previous commitment to abandon its nuclear program.

The talks to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula, which has been suspended since 2008, also includes ROK, China, the US, Japan and Russia.

Stapleton Roy, distinguished scholar at the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center, said the US and China have a common interest in peace and stability in East Asia, but their approaches will often differ because of historic and geographic factors and the dissimilar nature of their relations with countries in the region.

"Such differences can be reduced and managed more effectively by timely consultations between the two sides. This will be a major purpose of Vice President Biden's trip,"

"The United States and China share a major responsibility to act wisely and responsibly in dealing with regional sources of tension, and neither should let the passions of the moment drive their behavior," said Roy, who was US ambassador to China in the early and mid 1990s.

Zha Daojiong, a professor of international relations at Peking University, said the Obama Administration appears to be marching deeper in taking ownership of the diplomatic impasses among Tokyo, Beijing, and Seoul and many in Washington would prefer to reject validity in such observation.

"The truth of the matter is that in the three Northeast Asian capitals expectations of words and actions of ‘reassurance’ from Washington DC can easily strain US wish to satisfy all," he said.

"As such, realistically, the Biden trip can and should function as one that personifies the usual American call for restraint by each of the three Northeast Asian capitals against conflict, which no party desires," Zha said.

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