BEIJING -- Vice President Joseph Biden arrived Wednesday in Beijing, hoping to use his past acquaintance with President Xi Jinping to smooth over some major hitches in U.S.-China relations.
Overshadowing their meeting has been the showdown over China’s surprising designation Nov. 23 of a large swatch of the East China Sea as an air defense identification zone, demanding that all other countries give advance notice to fly through — no matter that much of the zone is controlled by Japan.
At least in their public appearance Wednesday at the Great Hall of the People, the two leaders made no reference to the dispute, pledging instead to develop their relationship. Xi praised the Obama administration’s willingness to "to work together to build a new model of major-country relations,’’ a term Beijing has coined to assert that they should be treated as an equal by the United States.
"You are candid and you are constructive in developing this new relationship," Biden responded. "Candor generates trust. … Trust is the basis on which real change, constructive change is made, and I'm delighted to be back with you."
In private, their talk was presumably tougher, and what was supposed to be a 45-minute meeting last two hours.
The hope is that Biden can persuade Xi to rein in the assertive nationalism that has characterized his first year in office, one in which Chinese forays into the East China Sea and South China Sea have the rattled neighbors. In his previous stop in Tokyo, Biden promised he would be “raising these concerns in great specificity.’’
The White House has played up the friendship between Biden and Xi, who met as counterparts when Xi served as vice president under his predecessor, Hu Jintao. They last met in February 2012, attending a basketball game together in Los Angeles.
"The vice president, by virtue of his extensive interactions with the senior leadership in China, has the ability to have that kind of candid conversation" about Chinese behavior in the East China Sea, a senior administration official told reporters on Tuesday
At least initially, Xi appeared not to recognize Biden, saying “Nice to meet you," though that might have been an interpreter’s error. In their formal session, Xi said, “Let me again warmly welcome you to China, my old friend.’’
Regardless of their personal chemistry, Biden can expect considerable resistance from Xi. China does not consider the United States to be an honest broker in the disputes with Japan, a distrust made clear in the barrage of editorials greeting Biden in Beijing.
"Despite trying to present the image of being an impartial mediator, Washington has obviously taken Japan's side," opined the English-language China Daily, which described “Tokyo’s provocations" as "the root cause of the tensions.’’
Nevertheless, the Chinese were clearly pleased that the United States and Japan did not issue a joint statement during the Tokyo visit demanding that China rescind the designation of the new zone. Although the Pentagon defied Beijing by dispatching two warplanes into the restricted zone, U.S. civilian airliners have been complying with the rules requiring advance notice, something that Japanese and South Korean carriers have refused to do.
The Chinese appear anxious for the crisis over the air defense identification to be swept aside and to move on to other issues.
"I think the main topics will be North Korea, Iran, Syria and Internet security. And the United States would like to learn more about the reform plans announced after our third plenum," a recent Chinese government meeting on economic policy, said Chu Shulong, a professor at Beijing’s Tsinghua University.
"Just because the air defense identification zone is a hot topic, Biden needs to express the U.S. view, but it shouldn’t take up too much weight in the discussion."