US Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Asia as tensions are escalating between China and Japan over a newly established Chinese air defense identification zone in the East China Sea.
The tensions center around the tiny Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu in China) which are within the new air defense zone. Although Japan has controlled the islands for many years, China and Taiwan both claim ownership of them.
The islands lie near key shipping routes and are surrounded by waters that serve as rich fishing grounds. In addition they're located close to potential oil and gas reserves.
Add to that their strategic military position - the US routinely flies surveillance over the airspace that China is attempting to restrict - and the Senkaku Islands, though minuscule and uninhabited, are a significant source of contention.
Not surprisingly, Beijing's unilaterally-declared air defense identification zone didn't go over well with the US, Japan, or South Korea.
The air defense identification zone requires all planes entering the airspace to file flight plans with Beijing.
Japan has made it clear that their planes will do no such thing. In what is seen as an act of protest, the US flew two B-52 bombers over the zone after the announcement without giving notice, but has urged its commercial airlines to notify China before flying over.
Biden's 6-day tour of Asia started in Tokyo, where he addressed the air defense identification zone and attempted to assure Japan that the US stands with them in protest of it.
Biden said he was "deeply concerned about China's attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea."
From Tokyo, Biden traveled to Beijing.
Addressing a group of mostly young people who were waiting for visitor visas at the US Embassy, Biden praised the spirit of democracy, liberalism, and intellectualism: "Children in America are rewarded — not punished — for challenging the status quo. The only way you make something totally new is to break the mold of what was old."
He went on to say that "there is one thing that's stamped in the DNA of every American, whether they are naturalized citizens or natural-born. It's an inherent rejection of orthodoxy."
Not once in his public comments in China did Biden directly address the conflict over the air defense identification zone. Instead, he emphasized the need for candor, cooperation, and trust - clearly attempting to dial back the tension between China and Japan and prevent it from escalating further.
Still, Chinese state media criticized the US stance on the conflict. An editorial in the English language China Daily accused the US of "turning a blind eye to Tokyo's provocations."
From Beijing, Biden will travel on to Seoul, South Korea before returning to the US.
Image via YouTube