Joe Biden, the US vice-president, on Tuesday sharply criticised China’s declaration of a new air defence zone over the East China Sea, but stopped short of joining Japanese leaders in demanding that the zone be scrapped.
In Tokyo at the start of an Asian tour that will take him to Beijing on Wednesday, Mr Biden sought to reassure Japan, the US’s most important military ally in Asia, that it would defend the country against any overt aggression from an increasingly assertive China.
But even as he reiterated that the US was “deeply concerned” that China’s declaration of a wide air defence identification zone in November risked “accidents and miscalculations”, he did not demand that the perimeter be formally withdrawn – something Japan has said it wants but to which analysts say Beijing is extremely unlikely to agree.
“I told the prime minister that we will remain steadfast in our alliance commitments,” Mr Biden told a joint news conference after a meeting with Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister. He also urged Japan and China to improve communication and crisis management procedures to avoid any escalation of military tensions.
Japan and China are locked in a bitter stand-off over a group of Japanese-administered islands, called the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China. These fall within the Chinese ADIZ, which covers a large part of the East China Sea and overlaps with a similar decades-old zone established by Japan, as well as perimeters maintained by Taiwan and South Korea.
Earlier, a state department spokeswoman in Washington called on China to “rescind the procedures” attached to the zone, under which Beijing has warned that it could take “defensive emergency measures” against any aircraft that enter without sending flight plans to the Chinese authorities, including aircraft that do not intend to land in or fly over mainland China.
Other countries with ADIZs, including the US and Japan, typically exempt from identification procedures aircraft that are just passing through the area.
Japan has gone further in its demands, and in briefing local media ahead of Mr Biden’s visit Japanese officials had suggested they hoped the US would join them in calling for the Chinese ADIZ’s outright removal.
Itsunori Onodera, the defence minister, on Friday called for the zone to be “rescinded as soon as possible”.
“Under the Chinese air defence identification zone, the Senkaku Islands become Chinese territory, so Japan cannot accept it,” Mr Onodera said, referring to the disputed islands. “Under this assumption, we cannot accept any negotiation request from the Chinese side over how the ADIZ should be operated.”
Yoshiki Mine, a Japanese former diplomat now at the Canon Institute for Global Studies, said the best Japan could realistically hope for would be for China to quietly allow the same exemptions as other countries. “I don’t think the Chinese will rescind it, certainly not,” he said. “But they have a certain room for manoeuvre.”
The US flew B-52 bombers through the zone last week to demonstrate that it considered the area to be international air space. The Pentagon is also deploying new advanced surveillance aircraft to Japan, which will be used to monitor submarines in some of the increasingly contested areas of the waters around China.
Still, some in Japan were disappointed when Washington told US commercial airlines to abide by the regulations for safety reasons, in contrast to Tokyo’s request to Japanese airlines not to comply with the rules. The Obama administration’s decision not to press for an outright scrapping of the ADIZ may also irk members of Mr Abe’s hawkish government.
“The fact that China’s announcement has caused confusion and increased the risk of accidents only further underscores the validity of concerns and the need for China to rescind the procedures,” the US state department said on Monday.
Additional reporting by Kiran Stacey in Shanghai