TOKYO — With Japan locked in a tense standoff with China over disputed airspace, Vice President Joe Biden arrived here late Monday for a weeklong visit to Asia intended to reassure a close ally and demand answers from a potential adversary.
But first, Biden may need to repair a perceived disconnect between the United States and Japan in their responses to China’s declaration of a restricted flight zone over a swath of the East China Sea that includes disputed islands claimed by both Japan and China.
Analysts and former diplomats said that reassuring Japan of the U.S. commitment to the region was particularly important given creeping worries in Tokyo that the United States might no longer have the financial ability, or even the will, to maintain its dominant military position in the Asia-Pacific.
Although the Obama administration registered its displeasure with the so-called air defense identification zone established by China by sending two unarmed B-52 bombers on a mission through it, federal regulators, as a safety precaution, advised U.S. civilian flights to identify themselves before entering the airspace — in compliance with the Chinese regulations.
That was viewed by some in Japan as a mixed message, since the Japanese government had told its airlines to ignore the Chinese demand.
Japanese newspapers began worrying about “allies no longer walking in lockstep,” and government officials sought clarification from Washington.
The State Department quickly said that the advice did not mean that the U.S. was recognizing China’s self-declared air-defense zone.
And U.S. officials have told the Japanese that the Federal Aviation Administration’s decision was a safety recommendation — far short of an order, though major U.S. airlines said they were heeding it.
Administration officials said earlier that Biden would leave no doubt in Japan or China that the United States views the Chinese move as a provocation and plans to disregard it, at least as far as military operations go.
“We have real concerns with this move by China because it raises real questions about their intentions,” said a senior administration official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to avoid pre-empting Biden’s message. “It constitutes a unilateral change to the status quo in the region, a region that is already fraught.”
Still, the official said, Biden would not deliver a formal diplomatic protest to Beijing, where he is to meet with President Xi Jinping on Wednesday. His aides are determined not to allow the matter to dominate his trip, during which the vice president also hopes to build support for a trans-Pacific trade agreement and coordinate a response to the nuclear threat in North Korea.