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Biden's focus was supposed to be on the economy in a week-long trip where he is meeting with leaders of Japan, China and South Korea. But press accounts Tuesday on his first stop in Tokyo zeroed in on Biden's voicing of strong opposition to China's announcement of a new air defense zone that covers nearly 1 million square miles of ocean.
Standing with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Biden said the USA is "deeply concerned" about China's move.
"This action has raised regional tensions and increased the risk of accidents and miscalculation," he said.
China reacted angrily in an extraordinary English-language commentary on Tuesday in which state-run Xinhua news agency accused Washington of trying to "shore up its little brother" (Japan), but given that Tokyo "keeps pissing off almost everybody in the region by its attitude toward its wartime history, it would ultimately cost the United States more than it would gain from backing a country that still honors those whose hands were red with American blood."
Biden was to arrive in China on Wednesday for talks on the economy with members of its leadership. But he said the United States is coordinating closely with allies Japan and South Korea on the territorial issue and that he will raise the matter with China.
Japan has been pressing the United States to take a more active role in the dispute. The United States has said that the Asian nations should work out the disagreement among themselves peacefully.
But China, whose growth trajectory and vast population should bump its economic size past the USA in future years, has been laying claim to all fisheries and energy resources in the sea, which includes the Senkaku islands, a Japanese-controlled territory. The USA is obligated by treaty to defend Japan and its territories.
Beijing's increasingly muscular backing for sovereignty claims over remote, uninhabited islands and the natural resources that may lie around them has Abe pushing Japan to boost defense spending and modify pacifist portions of its constitution.
China said late last month that any aircraft wishing to enter the air defense zone above the sea must notify its government. The United States and Japan have refused to recognize China's zone, and the U.S. Air Force sent two B-52 aircraft from Guam into the area for a scheduled flight recently, the Pentagon said.
In moves that echo Cold War confrontations from the last century, military aircraft and naval vessels from China, Japan and the USA have scrambled and shadowed each other in recent weeks.
The Beijing leg of Biden's Asia trip, sandwiched between visits to Tokyo and Seoul, never promised to be less than challenging even though Biden has built up a rare rapport with Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The two met when Xi was vice president prior to his confirmation as Communist Party boss in the fall.
In a statement on China's defense ministry website Tuesday, spokesman Geng Yansheng claimed China's request for foreign flight plans, both commercial and military, when entering the air defense zone would benefit aviation safety.
"The East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone is a secure, not risky zone, a zone of cooperation not confrontation," he said.
Han Xudong, a professor at China's University of National Defense, said the zone will create a new challenge between China and the United States and its allies.
"But in essence it's a necessary step and another cornerstone to safeguard China's national interests," said Han in the Global Times, a Party-run newspaper.
"China has taken possible risks into consideration and prepared for it," he said. "Relevant countries should respect China's decision."
Biden cannot change China's position but should instead come to understand it, said Shen Dingli, an international relations expert at Shanghai's Fudan University.
China has exercised self-restraint, only setting up an air defense zone 62 years after the United States and 44 years after Japan did so, he said. Neither country has created a defense zone covering practically the entire sea, however.
"We will do everything hegemonic that the USA is doing. Why China cannot do what you do?" asked Shen.
China's ambassador to the Philippines claimed China has a sovereign right to establish a similar zone over the South China Sea, where China and the Philippines are locked in another long-running territorial dispute.
There were signs that the United States may bend to China's demand that commercial airlines file flight plans with its government before flying through the zone. Japan says the U.S. was advising American carriers to comply with such requests.
Tokyo has been urging Japanese commercial flights not to notify China before flying through the zone.
Senior Obama administration officials told the Associated Press on Tuesday that the U.S. never told American commercial carriers to comply specifically with China's demands. However, the Federal Aviation Administration reaffirmed existing policy that pilots should comply with such instructions anywhere in the world, said the officials, who weren't authorized to comment by name and demanded anonymity.
During his visit to Japan, Biden dropped by Shibuya, a bustling Tokyo district and fashion center, where he toured a technology company founded by a female entrepreneur. U.S. Ambassador to Japan Caroline Kennedy joined Biden as he mingled with young employees in a 24th-floor lunchroom overlooking Tokyo's skyline.
At a meeting later with business executives, Biden said he'd heard some say women are good in the workforce because they are kinder and gentler.
"I've never found that to be the case," Biden said to laughter. "They're as tough, they're as strong, they're as everything as a man is — and vice-versa."