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Biden's Pre-Planned Asia Visit Becomes High-Stakes Mission


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm David Greene, good morning.

Vice President Joe Biden's is in Asia right now. This is a trip that had been planned for some time, but as it turns out, it's happening at a pretty important moment. Last week, China caused an uproar by declaring that some airspace above the Pacific Ocean falls under its military's sphere of influence. China demanded that all commercial and military air traffic notify Chinese authority before flying through.

American allies like Japan and Taiwan said they will refuse to comply. And the U.S. pointedly flew bombers through the area, which is in the East China Sea. In short, China and the U.S. are vying for influence in the Pacific, just in time for Joe Biden's visit.

We turn to NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Beijing. Anthony, good morning.


GREENE: So update us on these tensions right now over this Chinese air defense declaration.

KUHN: Right. Well, since China declared that zone the weekend before last, the U.S., Japan and South Korea have all sent military flights through the zone and made it clear they have no intention of respecting it. China, meanwhile, says it has either monitored those flights or scrambled jets to patrol the area. So the concern, of course, is that there will be some sort of military miscalculation, some sort of miscommunication when China and other countries' warplanes are in the zone and there will be a clash.

GREENE: What can the United States and Vice President Biden do to show support to allies - like Japan, like South Korea - while still avoiding drawing themselves into some kind of conflict with China?

KUHN: Well, David, I think Biden's message is pretty much going to be this, and it's close to what Defense Secretary Hagel and Secretary of State Kerry have said. And that is that China's air defense zone is a provocative move. It changes the status quo in the East China Sea and is destabilizing. So I think he will call for China to enforce that zone in a way that is not provocative, and to avoid designating further zones, for example, over the South China Sea where there is also a dispute with China's neighbors.

But I think what may be interesting is that, you know, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made it clear that he wants to break free of the sort of post-World War II architecture in East Asia and have a more robust military presence. And the U.S. is a little ambivalent about that. And so privately, I think, Biden may counsel the Japanese and Prime Minister Abe to do this in a way that refrains from provoking China and South Korea. And that is something that Washington has done before.

GREENE: Well, as those conversations happen, I mean it's worth noting that there seems to be maybe a bit of tension between Japan and the United States - these traditional allies. Because Japan is complaining that the U.S. really blinked in a way by telling its commercial airlines to follow China's requirements in this defense zone. How did that split happen here?

KUHN: Well, the Japanese carriers - Japan Airlines and All Nippon Airways - at first complied with China's request to deliver flight plans. Then they reversed that policy when the Japanese government said it was a bad idea. Now, Delta, United and American Airlines are all giving the Chinese their flight plans. And the American government says, look, that's just Federal Aviation Administration policy in the interest of protecting civilian passengers. They're saying that this in no way constitutes recognition of China's zone, and that there's no daylight between the U.S. and Japan on this issue.

But in fact it shows up, you know, some clear differences. And that is that the Japanese have sovereignty at stake here. The U.S. does not, in the U.S. is in a much stronger position militarily.

GREENE: So Vice President Biden is first in Japan then goes to China. I mean what is China hoping to get out of this visit, if anything?

KUHN: Well, first of all, I think they want to make it clear to the U.S. that they're just protecting their own sovereignty by setting up this zone, that it's not going to influence commercial flights through the region and really it's Japan that's being the provocateur with its more robust military posture in Northeast Asia.

And what I think will be really interesting to watch, David, is whether China tries to use the U.S. to tamp down Japan's ambitions. In other words, whether they try to say do not let these small countries like Japan drag us big countries - like the U.S. and China - into a conflict.

GREENE: All right, that's NPR's Anthony Kuhn joining us from Beijing. Anthony, thanks a lot.

KUHN: Thank you, David. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.