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Sino-US tensions rise as Biden visits East Asia

The aim of Joe Biden's trip was to focus on the positives of Sino-US relations - economic cooperation and trade deals. Instead, the US vice president will have to deal with rising tensions over a few rocky islets.

At least the visit will now be a little more interesting. US Vice President Joe Biden's routine trip to Beijing this week to discuss economic cooperation - part of a tour of East Asia taking in Japan and South Korea - is now set to be overshadowed by the recent escalation of tensions over a chain of rocky, uninhabited islets named the Diaoyu Islands by the Chinese and the Senkaku Islands by Japan.

China chose an awkward moment to unilaterally declare an air defense zone over the islands, which are administered by Japan, and demand that airlines present them with flight plans for any planes going into the zone.

In response, the US on Monday (25.11.2013) sent a pair of unarmed B-52 bombers through the zone. This was all "part of a long-planned training sortie," said defense department spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Tom Crosson, but it was also clearly an assertion of US interests and an act of defiance against the emerging superpower.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (Photo: REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino)

Biden's meetings in Beijing are set to be a little tenser than planned

Testing the international waters

China responded by sending fighter jets to the area on Thursday (28.11.2013) while Chinese media is ratcheting up the tensions by demanding "timely countermeasures without hesitation." The tit-for-tat appears to be developing into the most dramatic spat in the area for almost 20 years - indeed since the crisis over Taiwan of the mid-1990s.

"I don't think we should underestimate the momentousness of this issue," said Thomas König, China program coordinator at the European Council on Foreign Relations. "For the first time China has butted heads in the region with the United States. China has realized that they are a player now, and they're testing the waters like they've never done before."

König thinks that Beijing's move was a miscalculation. "For sure they were not expecting this kind of reaction from an administration that is usually a bit more diplomatic," he said. "I was surprised as well, because the US often said before that the Senkaku Islands were a regional issue. But personally I think it was the right move by the US, because the zone could be seen as a challenge to US interests in the region. Then again, the US response could also be seen as irresponsible, because someone could have fired at those planes."

A B-52 from the 93rd Bomb Squadron, Barksdale Airforce Base, performs a flyover during pre-race ceremonies prior to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 7, 2010 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Rusty Jarrett/Getty Images for NASCAR)

The deployment of the B-52s may have been risky

Sea change

König's verdict is also fairly damning of China: "They're not very clear about what their intentions are with that defense zone," he said." And I think it backfired - it was quite an immature way of doing it, because it was so drastic."

But the occasional clumsiness is almost inevitable, given the rawness of China's new assertive foreign policy. König thinks such incidents are the first signs of a sea change as China grows more assertive. "Maybe now's the time to question the power structures that have been working so far," he said. "Maybe the players in the region are thinking, 'well this has worked so far, but how are we going to act 20 years down the line?' I hope these incidents don't happen more often, but I think they will."

Rod Wye, China specialist at the UK's Chatham House think tank, agrees. "China would say that this is a perfectly natural thing to do, and plenty of other countries in the region have declared these air defense zones."

Best of 'frenemies'

Behind all this lies the US' renewed interest in the Asia Pacific region, which is itself made more complicated by its defense commitment to Japan. In other words, any tensions between China and Japan will inevitably involve the US as well, something which feeds into the larger atmosphere of paranoia between the two powers. "There is a continuing Chinese suspicion that the US is encircling them, and the US has suspicions about China's ultimate intentions in the Asia Pacific region," said Wye.

Aerial view of the Senkaku Islands (Photo: Kyodo/MAXPPP)

The uninhabited Senkaku islands are claimed by both China and Japan

On the other hand, both sides have an interest in maintaining good economic relations. As a result, US-Sino relations sometimes appear a little schizophrenic. After all, China is planning to participate in a major Pacific wargame alongside the US navy and its regional allies in 2014.

"It's a relationship where neither side has really completely worked out what their position is," said Wye. "There is a continuing tension between the evident need for engagement, which is to the advantage of both sides, economically and militarily - and how the great power relationship will work out long-term. It's a very complex and volatile mixture at the moment."

On the other hand, there is no cause for alarmism. "That doesn't mean they are necessarily looking to be more assertive in bigger issues," said Wye. "Inevitably China is more involved in other international issues than it was before, because of its dependence on Middle Eastern oil and other factors, but it doesn't mean we will see quite the same in-your-face activity that they have demonstrated in their immediate neighborhood."

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