Thursday, December 05, 2013

Vice President Biden’s Contentious Courtesy Visit to China

I had my latest five minutes of fame on the Channel News Asia network at 8:30PM Tokyo Time this evening (an hour earlier than I had expected, which forced me to suspend cooking my dinner). I’d been prepped earlier in the day but had to do some adlibbing since the host of the news show went off script. Still, I did manage to air that “contentious courtesy visit” line, so mission accomplished. If I catch some flak from my Japanese former colleagues and some of my American friends, well, c’est la vie.

I will also be showing up next Monday at 11:30AM Tokyo Time on China Radio International for a panel discussion on, yes, “China’s Air Defense Identification Zone.” I’m not exactly the merchant of death but it’s rarely a good sign for Japan when I show up in the media.


Q. South Korea has declared its intention to expand its ADIZ. Does this complicate the situation in the region?

 A. Not much more than it already has been. The new Chinese ADIZ has more to do with geopolitics than national security, and South Korea will expand its own ADIZ to cover airspace over the submerged rock and the surrounding EEZ, but it does not alter the status quo at sea level and below.

Q. Will there be any direct effect of South Korea's ADIZ expansion on Japan?

A. No. Japan does not have a conflicting sovereignty claim on the sea area being contested there.

Some people do wonder if it will draw the two countries closer in opposition to China’s latest move. The United States would like to see that happen, no doubt about it. Highly unlikely, though.  The territorial dispute between Japan and South Korea is significantly more contentious from the South Korean perspective, since it is intimately connected with the so-called history issues.

Q. How are Vice President Biden's visits to the region being viewed so far?

A. About as seriously as an American vice president’s visit will ever be taken, as far as I can see from where I am in Japan. The three heads of state and government engage him in dialogue. After all, he is the vice president of the United States. However, Japan did not make any new concessions in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, and the Chinese authorities did not agree to roll back the ADIZ or the reporting requirements levied on aircraft merely passing through the ADIZ.

So it’s really more symbolic than substantial. But domestic troubles in America and the conundrum that is the Middle East are casting doubt on the seriousness of the Obama administration’s commitment to the “Pivot to Asia.” Vice President Biden’s visit helps to somewhat alleviate such concerns.

I can only guess at what the Chinese are thinking. My guess is that it’s being treated as not much more than a somewhat contentious courtesy visit.

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