This week Vice President Joe Biden found himself in a tense situation as he visited Japan, China and, currently, South Korea. What was meant to be a routine visit to the three countries turned into a diplomatic peace keeping mission regarding China's expanded air zone, and the media there has been keeping tabs on how well Biden's doing.
Japan and South Korea are upset with China because it expanded its air zone into their air zones on November 23. China thinks Japan started it — it being the escalation of tensions — but the world points out that China announced the air zone after debuting its nuclear submarine fleet in early November. To complicate matters more, South Korea and Japan's presidents don't talk. As The Military Times explained, South Korea doesn't think Japan has been remorseful about the sexual slavery it put citizens of its former colony through, and they're undergoing a territorial dispute.
Throughout the week, China's English-language state-run press have been closely following Biden's trip, with a series of pointed op-eds and pro-China news pieces. On Friday, the top story on People's Daily, the Communist party's paper of record, was a story reporting the Chinese president's request that the US respect the country's interests, with the hope that both countries would continue to "keep the bilateral relationship moving in the right direction." Japan and South Korea's independent media outlets have covered Biden's trip as well, with slightly less sass.
Two weeks ago China announced an expanded air defense identification zone and basically claimed a giant swath of the sky that overlaps with Japan, Taiwan and South Korea's air zones. More importantly, the new air zone covers a group of islands, called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China, that both countries claim ownership of but Japan runs, as explained by Jiayang Fan in The New Yorker. China demanded all airlines announce their flight plans before entering the zone, which Japan isn't having. The US — Japan's military ally, but China's economic ally — doesn't formally recognize the zone but hasn't told commercial planes not to announce their flight plans. Biden's job was to remain impartial and tell everyone to play nice. Here's what Japan, South Korea and, most importantly, China, think of Biden and how he did.
Japan: Biden known for "slips of the tongue"
Biden's reputation precedes him, even on the other side of the world. Here's how The Asahi Shimbun, a Japanese daily paper, described Biden on Tuesday in a column urging him to "speak clearly" to China:
In the United States, Vice President Joe Biden is often likened to “a drunken uncle at a wedding party.” He may be having the time of his life, but many around him fear he might get carried away and say something outrageous.
Biden is known to have made slips of the tongue, but that apparently is also what makes him affable and interesting.
Well, yes. The title of the column is "Clear words, not gaffes, needed from Biden in China," a request not quite met during his days in Japan. For instance, while promoting the need to integrate women in the workforce, Biden asked a group of women “Do your husbands like you working full-time?” Of course, the column had harsher words for China, which it called "a country that often refuses to accept common sense from the international community," and "an elephant riding a bicycle called ... single-party dictatorship."
China: "Careful handling better than knee-jerks"
Also while in Tokyo, Biden expressed America's concern over the expanded airspace claim, calling it an effort to "unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea” that might lead to "accidents and miscalculation,” according to The New York Times. Well, China didn't like that much. An op-ed in the state-run China Daily called on Wednesday called "Facts for Biden's Reference" took him to task:
First of all, despite trying to present the image of being an impartial mediator, Washington has obviously taken Japan's side. Turning a blind eye to Tokyo's provocations, the root cause of the tensions, the United States is wrongly pointing an accusing finger at China for "unilaterally" changing the "status quo" in the East China Sea.
The piece goes on to tell Biden he won't succeed if he just plans to "simply to repeat his government's previous erroneous and one-sided remarks." But once again, the real attack is on someone a little closer to home:
If the US is truly committed to lowering tensions in the region, it must first stop acquiescing to Tokyo's dangerous brinkmanship. It must stop emboldening belligerent Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to constantly push the envelope of Japan's encroachments and provocations.
Once he arrived in China, Biden, in "typically pugnacious form" as The Telegraph put it, on Wednesday told a group of Chinese students waiting for US visas that challenging the status quo is part of the "DNA of every American." "Innovation thrives where people breathe freely, speak freely, are able to challenge orthodoxy, where newspapers can report the truth without fear of consequences," he said. The Global Times wasn't having that, and ended a Friday op-ed chastising Biden:
Discussing American freedom with Chinese students at the US embassy is just a "routine event" involving senior US officials during trips to China. Americans will find Chinese society does not put high demands on their country. They should also not hold prejudice toward China's so-called nationalism. They may reflect if they need to adjust their behavior when a society as undemanding and mild as China cultivates nationalism toward the US.
China, in all its mildness, thinks everyone just needs to relax about this ADIZ thing. As the media correctly point out, other countries, including the US, Japan and South Korea, have their own airzones. Why can't China? And a Friday op-ed in China Daily titled "Careful handling better than knee-jerks," praises the US for trying to "be more reasonable after its initial response of dispatching bombers," since Biden hasn't called out right for China to retract its new air zone. The op-ed argues that everyone is kind of just overreacting, to be honest:
The initial response in some countries was so exaggerated you would think China was going to shoot down any plane flying into the ADIZ, something that China has never said it would do, and, of course, has no intention of doing.
South Korea: Not quite ready to "place its bet" on US policy
On Friday, Biden assured South Korea that America has its back. “The United States never says anything it does not do. It’s never been a good bet to bet against America," Biden said. "And America will continue to place its bet on South Korea.” Of course, according to The Korea Herald, there's been some skepticism on America's "strategic shift" in Asia due to America's economic problems.
His mention of the rebalancing policy came as skepticism over the strategy has deepened due to the financial challenges in Washington, including the congressionally mandated budget cuts, also known as the “sequestration,” and other domestic and external conundrums.
As South Korea's Yonhap News Agency reports on Friday, "there had been concerns that Washington's position appeared to have softened since," the B-52s flew over the ADIZ unannounced. The US repeated that it will not recognize the zone, but also encourages commercial airlines to announce their travel plans through the zone to China as a safety precaution. In fact, Korea is finalizing plans to extend its own air zone into the zone that China claimed. Biden, in a very diplomatic and gaffe-free way, said he "appreciated President Park's explanation and South Korea's efforts," and that both sides would "continue close consultations on this issue," though everyone wanted to know America's stance, reports Yonhap. Vague, measured and not too quotable — South Korea was by far the least Biden-like stop on the tour.