In a sharp rebuff to the United States, China accused Washington on Wednesday of taking Japan's side in a tense clash over disputed islands in the East China Sea, underscoring rising regional friction as visiting U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden met with Beijing's leaders.
Emerging from a private meeting with President Xi Jinping that went considerably longer than scheduled, Biden appeared sombre and subdued. In a brief appearance before reporters in which he took no questions, Biden did not go into details on differences over China's newly declared restricted flying zone. Instead, Biden spoke more generally of a "new model of major country cooperation," saying U.S.-China relations must hinge on trust and a positive notion of each other's motives.
'Children in America are rewarded — not punished — for challenging the status quo.' - Joe Biden
The awkward kickoff for a series of official meetings in Beijing followed Biden's speech earlier Wednesday urging young Chinese citizens to challenge orthodoxy and the status quo. The vice-president drew an implicit contrast between the authoritarian rule of China's government and the liberal, permissive intellectual culture he described in the United States.
Neither Biden nor Xi made public mention of the clash over disputed territory that has pitted China against the United States and its Asian allies.
An editorial in the state media China Daily charged, however, that Washington "is turning a blind eye to Tokyo's provocations," calling that the "root cause of the tensions." It said that "the United States is wrongly pointing an accusing finger at China for 'unilaterally' changing the 'status quo' in the East China Sea."
Biden told reporters after his initial talks with Xi that the relationship between the two major powers will significantly affect the course of the 21st century. If the U.S. and China can get that relationship right, the possibilities are limitless, he said to reporters who were allowed in briefly after the vice president met with Xi.
'Candor generates trust'
Biden said he came to Beijing because complex relationships require sustained engagement at high levels. He said Xi's candor and constructive approach had left an impression on him.
"Candor generates trust," Biden said. "Trust is the basis on which real change — constructive change — is made."
The two leaders had a second meeting involving larger delegations and a working dinner planned for later Wednesday.
Absent from Biden's public comments was any discussion of U.S. concerns over China's new air defence zone. Only a day earlier, Biden pledged to raise those concerns "with great specificity" with Xi and other Chinese leaders, adding that China's move was deeply concerning.
"This action has raised regional tensions and increased the risk of accidents and miscalculation," Biden said in Tokyo Tuesday after meeting with Japanese President Shinzo Abe.
Japan has been on edge for the past two weeks since China unilaterally declared any planes flying through the zone must file flight plans with Beijing. The airspace sits above tiny islands that are at the centre of a long-running territorial dispute between China and Japan.
The U.S. refuses to recognize the zone, but Biden has avoided calling publicly for Beijing to retract it, wary of making demands that China is likely to snub. Rather, the vice-president hoped to persuade China not to enforce the zone or establish similar zones over other disputed territories.
After meeting with Biden, Xi said the U.S.-China relationship had gotten off to a good start this year "and has generally maintained a momentum of positive development." But he said the global situation is changing, with more pronounced challenges and regional hotspots that keep cropping up.
"The world as a whole is not tranquil," Xi said through a translator, adding that the U.S. and China shoulder important responsibilities for upholding peace. "To strengthen dialogue and cooperation is the only right choice facing both of our countries."
Added Biden, "The way I was raised was to believe that change presents opportunity."
Biden urges Chinese to challenge government
In his speech earlier to young Chinese citizens waiting at the U.S. embassy to get visitor visas processed, the vice-president said: "I hope you learn that innovation can only occur where you can breathe free, challenge the government, challenge religious leaders." Biden told young Chinese citizens waiting at the U.S. embassy to get visitor visas processed.
"Children in America are rewarded — not punished — for challenging the status quo," he said.
Biden's comments were not immediately reported by Chinese state media and were not likely to be widely known in China. A one-minute excerpt of his speech posted by the Sina news website included Biden's comment about challenging the "status quo," but left out the one about challenging the government.
When Biden arrived later at the Great Hall of the People, a ceremonial edifice steps away from Tiananmen Square, any tensions between the U.S. and China were papered over as Chinese Vice President Li Yuanchao welcomed him with an elaborate honour guard. A military band played the two countries' national anthems as Biden and Xi stood amid the massive hall's marble floors and crisscrossing red carpets.