During his much-touted trip to Asia, Vice President Joe Biden hasn’t wasted any time criticizing the Chinese government.
China’s newly established air defense zone in the East China Sea has been a top issue for American and Chinese leaders this week, fomenting tension between the two powers as they try to work on other issues like North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. Biden was quick to remind China the United States has a vested interest in the region and does not recognize the zone, which covers airspace over islands Japan lays claim to and a reef some believe belong to South Korea.
"We are, and will remain a Pacific power diplomatically, economically, and militarily," Biden said. "That's just a statement of fact."
The vice president also denounced the Chinese government’s crackdown on international journalists, saying a free and open press is important to innovation. Several U.S. journalists, including nine from The New York Times and 14 from Bloomberg, have not had their visas renewed and may have to leave China by the end of the year or face expulsion.
"We have many disagreements, and some profound disagreements, on some of those issues right now, in the treatment of U.S. journalists," said Biden, who raised the issue with Chinese President Xi Jinping. "But I believe China will be stronger and more stable and more innovative if it respects universal human rights."
Biden opened the trip by urging Chinese citizens seeking visas at the American Embassy in Beijing to question authority, a backhanded swipe at China’s authoritarian rule. "Innovation can only occur where you can breathe free," Biden said. "Children in America are rewarded — not punished — for challenging the status quo. The only way you make something totally new is to break the mold of what was old."
His criticisms come at a time when the Obama administration is trying to refocus attention on Asia. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan wind down, the president has wanted to recognize the growing economic and strategic importance of the region and shore up our relationship with powerhouses like Japan and Korea while developing ties to emerging markets like the Philippines. Just as important is the administration’s goal of keeping Chinese power in check.
On this last score, Biden’s trip may prove the most critical. Though he’s meeting with leaders from Japan and South Korea as well, the vice president has spent the bulk of his time talking about the problems confronting U.S.-China relations, taking a hardline stance when it comes to some of the most fundamental issues that divide the two countries, like human rights and freedom of the press. Reining in China, which over the past few years has increasingly tried to exert more influence in the region by laying claim to contested territory, is a top priority for the Obama administration. Biden’s tough talk was, in many ways, designed to assure smaller countries in the region that the United States would provide a counterbalance to China.
Beyond that, Biden’s trip comes at an important time for the pivot. Turnover has hampered the White House’s efforts to concentrate on the region as several key players with knowledge of and contacts in the region have left the administration. At the same time, Secretary of State John Kerry has been mired in dealing with the Syrian chemical weapons crisis, trying to broker an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, and orchestrating the Iran nuclear enrichment deal. It took Kerry more than two months to make his first trip to the region after being confirmed.
Many see Biden as a logical choice to get the strategy back on track given his long foreign policy resume and his relationship with Xi. In the past few years, the two had gotten to know each other through a series of meetings when Xi was China’s vice president. Only time will tell if that relationship will pay off for the U.S.