WASHINGTON // The US vice president will try to strike a delicate balance of calming military tensions with China while supporting ally Japan against Beijing on a trip to Asia this week.
Aiming to counter criticism that the United States is neglecting Asia because it is distracted by domestic politics and the Middle East, the White House has long been planning a visit by Joe Biden to Japan, China and South Korea.
Those countries are at the heart of a quarrel over two tiny islands in the East China Sea claimed by both Tokyo and Beijing that descended into military brinkmanship after China in late November declared an “air defence identification zone” that includes the islands.
In Tokyo on Tuesday, Mr Biden will likely assure Japan that a military alliance with the United States dating back to the 1950s remains valid as the government of the prime minister, Shinzo Abe, wrangles with China over the islands.
Yet he will also try to calm tensions between the United States and China over the same territorial dispute when he goes to Beijing later in the week.
“It’s especially important ... that we continue to amplify our messages that we are and always will be there for our allies, and that there is a way for two major powers in the US and China to build a different kind of relationship for the 21st century,” a senior Obama administration official said.
Although Washington takes no position on the sovereignty of the uninhabited islands, it recognises Tokyo’s administrative control and says the US-Japan security pact applies to them, in a stance that counters China’s attempts to challenge US military dominance in the region.
“I think (Biden) will probably publicly restate the commitment the US has under the mutual defence treaty and that the islands are covered under article five of the treaty and that we recognise Japan’s administrative control and oppose any efforts to undermine that,” said Bonnie Glaser, an Asia expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank. “It’s essential that he says that publicly.”