U.S. Vice President Joe Biden voiced strong opposition on Tuesday to China's new air defense zone above disputed islands in the East China Sea, showing a united front with an anxious Japan as tension in the region simmered.
Standing side by side in Tokyo with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Biden said the United States is "deeply concerned" about China's attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in the region.
"This action has raised regional tensions and increased the risk of accidents and miscalculation," he said.
Biden said the U.S. is coordinating closely with allies Japan, South Korea and others, adding that Washington has an interest in lowering tensions in the region.
"I will be raising these issues with great specificity when I meet with Chinese leadership the day after tomorrow," he said.
His remarks came as Japan is pressing the U.S. to be more active in taking Japan's side in an escalating dispute over China's air defense zone.
The U.S. and Japan have refused to recognize the new zone, over tiny islands claimed by China and Japan. The U.S. and its allies are concerned China's move is part of a broader strategy to assert increasing authority in the region.
"The prospect for miscalculation and mistake is too high," Biden said of the zone.
Abe, who met with Biden at the prime minister's residence Tuesday, said he and Biden confirmed that neither country would tolerate the attempt to change the status quo by force. He invoked Japan's decades-long alliance with the U.S. in pledging the nations would work closely to deal with the situation.
At the same time, Abe appeared to try to smooth over a minor rift that emerged between the U.S. and Japan over whether commercial airlines should comply with China's demand that they file flight plans before flying through the zone. Japanese leaders were concerned after word came that the U.S. was advising American carriers, in line with existing protocol, to comply with such requests from foreign governments.
"We agreed we will not condone any action that could threaten safety of civilian aircraft," Abe said.
Reluctant to cede any ground, Tokyo has been urging Japanese commercial flights not to notify China before flying through the zone. Word that the U.S. had advised American commercial carriers to comply rankled leaders in Tokyo, who were hoping a united front with the U.S. would increase pressure on Beijing to reverse course.
But senior Obama administration officials said Tuesday that the U.S. never told American commercial carriers to comply specifically with China's demands. Rather, the Federal Aviation Administration merely reaffirmed existing policy that pilots should comply with such instructions anywhere in the world, said the officials, who weren't authorized to comment and requested anonymity.
The zone covers more than 600 miles from north to south, above international waters separating China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. China says all aircraft entering the zone must notify Chinese authorities beforehand or face unspecified defensive measures.
Although the U.S. has joined Japan and other allies in refusing to recognize the zone, Washington has trodden carefully, wary of creating a new fault line in its relationship with China just as the U.S. is pursuing a new era of economic cooperation with Beijing.
The show of unity between Biden and Abe will be closely watched by China as well as by other Asian nations worried that the new defense zone may portend further steps by China to assert control in the region. On Monday, China's ambassador to the Philippines claimed China has the right to establish a similar zone over the South China Sea, where China and the Philippines are locked in another long-running territorial dispute.
The feuds promise to trail Biden throughout his weeklong trip to Asia — a tour intended to affirm Washington's continued interest in upping its presence in the region, in part to counter China's growing influence.
Biden will fly on Wednesday to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, where officials said Biden would directly raise U.S. concerns over the zone. Biden will then travel Thursday to South Korea, another U.S. ally at odds with China over the air defense zone.
Japan is concerned that compliance with China's demands would allow China to slowly solidify its claim to the tiny islands and the strategically important waters that surround them. The United States sees rising tensions between China and its neighbors as a threat to U.S. interests and is concerned that the tense atmosphere increases the likelihood that an incident in the air will spiral out of control.
The U.S. doesn't take a position on China's and Japan's claims to the islands but acknowledges that Japan administers them, meaning U.S. treaty obligations to defend Japan could come into play.
The Associated Press