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Biden faces diplomatic challenge in Asia beyond island dispute

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Vice President Joseph R. Biden arrived in Tokyo, Japan before midnight on Monday for a week long visit to Asia with the goal of reassuring Japan, a close ally, and gaining answers to a power dispute from China.

Newly appointed Ambassador to Japan, Caroline Kennedy, greeted the Vice President upon his arrival. It is a test time for the United States and the Obama foreign policy on East Asia. A territorial dispute between Japan and China has been brewing this past year for territorial claims over an island chain in the East Asia Sea. It is known as the Diaoyu in China and Senaku in Japan.

Mr. Xi has rebuffed Mr. Abe’s requests for a formal summit meeting after refusing to sell interest in the islands to Japan, a sign of Mr. Xi’s firm stance on Japan.

Earlier on Saturday, Nov. 21 China’s Defense Minister declared the area as a Chinese Air Defense Identification Zone. Any aircraft flying through the zone must identify itself to Chinese authorities and obey all orders at the risk of ‘emergency military measures’.

The situation proliferated with diplomatic words from all sides last Monday, Nov. 25th when two unarmed U.S. B-52 bombers did their planned training run over the islands as did the Japanese air force planes simultaneously. The flight missions had been planned weeks in advance.

But as a safety precaution, federal regulators advised American civilian flights to identify themselves before entering the airspace, in compliance with the Chinese regulations.

That was viewed by some in Japan as a mixed message, since the Japanese government had told its airlines to ignore the Chinese demand.

This most recent declaration of a restricted flight zone appears to be a thinly veiled message from the Chinese questioning what U.S. East Asian foreign policy is in regards to China, Japan and Korea.

Enter Vice President Biden to address this superficial issue and the real issues behind the air zone declaration by the Chinese. The State Department quickly said that the advice did not mean that the United States was recognizing China’s self-declared air-defense zone. American officials have told the Japanese that the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision was a safety recommendation — far short of an order; though major American airlines said they were heeding it.

In order to maintain this situation under control and not drive a wedge between U.S. and Japanese relations, the official State Department comment is that Vice President Biden would not deliver a formal diplomatic protest to Beijing.

All of this comes at a time when the Japanese, after dependent upon American bases on Okinawa to back up their limited patrols, plan to build a new army base by 2016 on a small, inhabited island near the disputed islands of last week’s Chinese declaration.

Japan is also considering buying unarmed American drones to patrol the area as part of a three-year-long shift in military strategy to focus on the southern islands and China.

In the meantime, Chinese President Xi Jinping appears to not want to escalate this situation. China sent its aircraft carrier to another potential trouble spot, the South China Sea, while it avoided sailing near the disputed islands.

During last week’s difficulties, one of Mr. Obama’s current advisers said, 'It’s pretty clear this isn’t really about the islands.' Declining to speak on the record about a sensitive strategic issue, the official added that it was about a desire by some in China, including the People’s Liberation Army and perhaps the new political leadership, 'to assert themselves in ways that until recently they didn’t have the military capability to make real.'

It is Biden's task to show Japan and China how the U.S. will work with them while maintaining a military presence in Asia.

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