Biden in Asia: The vice president navigates a difficult situation

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Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to East Asia has taken him to Japan, China and South Korea, where he had the challenge of expressing reasonable policy particularly toward the first two, a pair of prickly countries.

The United States, as part of President Barack Obama’s “pivot to Asia” is trying to maintain good relations with all countries in the region, especially relatively healthy giants China, Japan and South Korea while seeking to limit excesses by any of them that could threaten peace and equilibrium.

Current burrs under the U.S. policy saddle includes pushiness by Chinese President Xi Jinping in exerting what it considers its right to enforce a sphere of influence in the East China Sea, South China Sea and Yellow Sea. In recent years, China has accompanied its impressive economic growth with slight increases in military might.

Japan’s recent trend toward economic recovery under the leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has also included a slight push toward increasing its military capacities, even though it still relies on 50,000 U.S. troops and its nuclear umbrella for defense.

The Chinese upped the ante, increasing tensions with Japan, by asserting an air defense over disputed islands, actually uninhabited pieces of rock, in the East China Sea. Both sides have showed willingness since not to push to the point of hostilities.

Mr. Biden has stepped into that delicate situation, wishing to preserve both Japanese cooperation as an ally and to pursue issues of common concern with China, such as Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs. He has been careful and seems to have preserved both relationships, acting as a teammate to Secretary of State John Kerry in the Middle East. Mr. Biden has also looked somewhat presidential in doing so, achieving what is probably another goal of his trip.

The next stop for him came Thursday in South Korea where, north of the 38th parallel, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s regime seems to be undergoing internal turbulence — he appears to have fired his uncle — and provocatively stepping up activities in its nuclear program. After meetings yesterday and today with South Korean leaders, the vice president may visit the demilitarized zone between the two countries on Saturday.

Mr. Biden could score a touchdown with a quick visit to Pyongyang or by achieving a renewal of the long-suspended six-party talks with the North. Both would probably be more difficult than wending a way between China and Japan.

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