Amid the renewed contradiction between China and the United States and increased tensions between China and Japan triggered by Beijing’s announcement of an East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone, US Vice President Joe Biden paid a two-day visit to Beijing. He wound up the trip without attaining his goals but did not go home empty-handed.
Supported by his good personal relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Biden had a talk with the top Chinese leader on a wide range of issues concerning Sino-US relations. The frank and constructive conversation has undoubtedly added a positive factor into the subtle, complicated bilateral relationship. It will also add impetus to both countries’ efforts to seek a new type of major-powers relationship that features cooperation and non-confrontation.
Soon after China announced the ADIZ, the US sent two B-52 bombers to fly over the zone in open defiance. The move prompted worries about a possible confrontation between the two powers. After the Biden visit, the risk subsided. Though they failed to reach a consensus, the top officials of the two countries exchanged ideas on the ADIZ issue frankly. The fact that both sides could remain calm on such a highly sensitive and potentially explosive issue and each frankly voiced their opinions without affecting the overall situation of the bilateral relations signals that the Sino-US relationship has come closer to maturity.
China established the East China Sea ADIZ to meet its air defense needs far later than other countries. More than 20 countries, including the US, Japan and the Republic of Korea, have long set up their identification zones. China’s move complies with international practices. The US and Japan, however, expressed strong opposition and refused to recognize the Chinese zone. Such reaction naturally gives rise to the question: “What kind of a ‘legal basis’ is there that justifies Japan’s – and other countries’ – ADIZ but denies China’s?”
Biden didn’t give a definitive answer to that question. Washington repeatedly said that the new ADIZ was China’s unilateral move to change the “status quo” of the Diaoyu Islands (i.e. what Japan calls Senkaku). The Americans apparently had not done sufficient homework before they made the allegation.
The Diaoyu Islands’ current state stems from two basic facts. First, when the US decided in 1970 to hand over the Diaoyu Islands to Japan together with the Ryukyu Islands, what it actually delivered was the administration rather than the sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands. At the time, the US suggested that China and Japan hold negotiations to settle the dispute over the sovereignty. In other words, one essential part of Diaoyu’s “status quo” is that ‘the sovereignty has not been handed over to Japan.”
Second, when China and Japan normalized their diplomatic relations and signed the China-Japan Peace and Friendship Treaty in 1972, leaders of the two countries had a common understanding, that is, the dispute over Diaoyu should be shelved for the time being and left to later generations for final solution.
But Japan later broke the status quo by repeatedly denying the dispute and ruling out any possibility of negotiation. It even unilaterally expanded its ADIZ twice, in 1972 and 2010. To make the situation worse, Japanese rightists and the government staged a farce of “purchase” to “nationalize” the Diaoyu Islands, the ownership of which they had never taken over from the US. By doing so, they hoped to use the “ownership” to support their claim to the sovereignty. The Japanese moves have thus completely broken the “shelving the dispute” promise that both countries have kept for 40 years.
When the US accused China of “unilaterally breaking the status quo”, it deliberately ignored the fact that sovereignty was not involved when the US handed over Diaoyu to Japan; it also purposely dodged the fact that China and Japan had reached a common understanding of “shelving the dispute”. It was just the moves taken by Japan to deny or twist these two facts that have caused tensions in its relations with China and led to escalation of tensions in East Asia.
Before Biden visited China, international media had speculated that one of his missions was to mediate between China and Japan so as to alleviate the tensions in the Sino-Japanese relations. But how could he be fair and impartial when Washington did not stand impartial on the question who was “unilaterally changing the status quo” and even deliberately ignored the legal status of Diaoyu at its delivery by the US itself 40 years ago? His mediation attempt failed unavoidably.
Yang Xiyu is a Senior Fellow at the China Institute of International Studies.