China chief gives no ground to Biden in air zone dispute

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BEIJING -- Giving no ground, Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden traded strong arguments Wednesday over China's contentious new air defense zone, with no indication of progress toward defusing a situation that is raising anxieties across Asia and beyond.

Though Mr. Biden made clear the deep concern of the U.S. and other countries during the 5½ hours of talks -- themselves highly unusual for an American vice president and Chinese president -- Mr. Xi vigorously made his case, too, for China's declaration of new rules concerning a strip of airspace more than 600 miles long above disputed islands in the East China Sea.

The U.S. worries that China's demand that pilots entering the airspace file flight plans with Beijing could lead to an accident or a confrontation spiraling dangerously out of control. Now it is up to the Chinese to take steps to lower tensions, and "it's a question of behavior and action," said a U.S. official, who briefed reporters on the private talks.

The official was not authorized to be quoted by name and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Though Mr. Biden expressed no disappointment in public remarks, the outcome of his visit was not what the U.S. might have hoped for.

A day earlier, the vice president had stood shoulder to shoulder in Tokyo with the leader of Japan, China's regional rival, pledging to raise Washington's concerns with Mr. Xi directly. But as he arrived in Beijing, an editorial in the state-run China Daily charged Washington with "turning a blind eye to Tokyo's provocations," warning that Mr. Biden would hit a dead end should he come "simply to repeat his government's previous erroneous and one-sided remarks."

Late Wednesday in Washington, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called China's announcement of the zone "destabilizing" and complained that it had come "so unilaterally and so immediately without any consultation."

"That's not a wise course of action to take for any country," Mr. Hagel said at a Pentagon news conference.

Neither Mr. Biden nor Mr. Xi mentioned the dispute as they appeared briefly before reporters at the end of their first round of talks. But in private, the issue came up at length at the beginning and again near the end of the long-planned meeting, senior Obama administration officials said.

The typically upbeat Mr. Biden appeared subdued as he reflected on the complexity of the relationship between China and the U.S., two world powers seeking closer ties despite wide ideological gulfs they have as of yet been unable to bridge.

"This new model of major-country cooperation ultimately has to be based on trust, and a positive notion about the motive of one another," Mr. Biden said, flanked by top advisers in a resplendent meeting room steps away from Tiananmen Square.

The calibrated public comments played down the deep strains permeating the relationship between the world's two largest economies.

Earlier, however, Mr. Biden told Chinese teenagers waiting to get visitor visas processed at the U.S. Embassy that American children are rewarded rather than punished for challenging the status quo, an implicit criticism of the Chinese government's authoritarian rule.

"I hope you learn that innovation can only occur where you can breathe free, challenge the government, challenge religious leaders." Mr. Biden said.

Mr. Xi, for his part, stuck to the script -- at least in public. The Chinese leader touted the benefits of closer U.S.-China ties as he laid out "profound and complex changes" underway in Asia and across the globe.

"The world, as a whole, is not tranquil," Mr. Xi said.

Behind closed doors, Mr. Xi made his own case for why China's action to establish the air zone is appropriate, said the U.S. administration officials, who weren't authorized to comment by name and demanded anonymity. Mr. Xi listened earnestly as Mr. Biden presented his own arguments, the officials said, but it was unclear what impact there might have been.

The simmering dispute over the tiny islands and the airspace above them has trailed Mr. Biden throughout his weeklong trip to Asia. After meeting with China's premier and speaking to business leaders today, he will fly to Seoul in South Korea -- another neighbor whose air defense zone now overlaps with China's.


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