Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to East Asia this week included stops in Japan, China, and South Korea. He had the challenge of expressing reasonable policy, particularly toward the first two prickly countries.
The United States, as part of President Obama’s “pivot” toward Asia, seeks to maintain good relations with all countries in the region, especially its largest ones. But Mr. Obama also wants to limit excesses by any Asian country that could threaten peace and equilibrium.
China, under President Xi Jinping, is 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 economic recovery under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe also has been accompanied by a slight increase in its military capacity. But Japan still relies on 50,000 U.S. troops and America’s nuclear umbrella for its defense.
Chinese recently increased tensions with Japan by asserting an air defense over disputed islands — uninhabited pieces of rock — in the East China Sea. Both sides have declined to push that dispute to the point of hostilities.
Mr. Biden stepped into that delicate situation, wishing both to preserve Japan’s cooperation as an ally and to pursue issues of common concern with China, such as Iran’s and North Korea’s nuclear programs. He seems to have preserved both relationships, acting as a teammate of Secretary of State John Kerry. He also looked somewhat presidential in doing so — achieving another likely goal of his trip.
The vice president’s stop in South Korea offered a reminder that above 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 stepping up its nuclear program. After meeting with South Korean leaders, Mr. Biden may visit the demilitarized zone between the countries today.
Mr. Biden could score by making an unscheduled visit to North Korea, or achieving a renewal of long-suspended talks with the north. Both feats would probably be harder than mediating between China and Japan.