Pentagon Lets Joe Biden Do the Talking With China

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Vice President Joe Biden at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on Wednesday.

AP Photo/Lintao Zhang, Pool

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Chinese President Xi Jinping and Vice President Joe Biden at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on Wednesday.

Hagel and Dempsey have not talked to their Chinese counterparts during the latest tensions. The Pentagon says that’s by design. By Kevin Baron

Another tense military standoff with China, another round of near silence between the Pentagon and the People’s Liberation Army. But this time, that’s the plan.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said on Wednesday that they have not spoken to their Chinese counterparts about the recently contested air space that China has claimed as its own but the United States argues is international and free. 

But unlike previous U.S.-China military standoffs resulting in radio silence, this time the Pentagon said the phones aren’t ringing on purpose. When China announced its Air Defense Identification Zone, Pentagon officials immediately expressed their concerns to Chinese officials through Washington-based channels, according to a senior defense official. But with Vice President Joe Biden just days from a visit with President Xi Jiping in Beijing, the administration agreed to let Biden, not Hagel and Dempsey, do the talking.

Biden spent more than five hours in meetings in Beijing on Wednesday, nearly half of which were with limited staff behind closed doors and included lengthy talk about the air defense zone, according to a senior administration official.

“The vice president laid out our position in detail,” the official said, in a transcript provided by the White House. “He indicated, as we’ve said, that we don’t recognize the zone, that we have deep concerns about it.  And he indicated to Xi that we are looking to China to take steps as we move forward to lower tensions, to avoid enforcement actions that could lead to crisis, and to establish channels of communication with Japan, but also with their other neighbors to avoid the risk of mistake, miscalculation, accident or escalation.”

“We’ll see how things unfold in the coming days and weeks,” the official said.

“I have not spoken to my Chinese counterpart,” Hagel said, in a Pentagon press conference a few hours later. Dempsey added, “I have actually reached out to the schedulers to connect me with my Chinese counterpart. I suspect it’ll occur following the vice president’s visit.”

Hagel and Dempsey said they were more concerned about the way China declared the zone unilaterally and insisted all aircraft report their flight plants, rather than the zone itself.

“Well, I think that we’ve made it pretty clear what our position is,” said Dempsey. “And it’s not that the ADIZ itself is new or unique. The biggest concern that we have is how it was done so unilaterally and so immediately without any consultation… That’s not a wise course of action to take for any country.”

Dempsey added, “It wasn’t the declaration of the ADIZ that actually was destabilizing, it was their assertion that they would cause all aircraft entering the ADIZ to report, regardless of whether they were intending to enter into the sovereign air space of China. And that is destabilizing.”

The Obama administration has worked deliberately since 2009 to open lines of communication between U.S. and Chinese military leaders for exactly these types of incidents, to avoid what defense leaders often call miscalculations of each others’ intentions. But despite regular reciprocal visits by defense ministers and military chiefs since 2011, U.S. officials were blindsided by China’s announcement of the air defense zone, and quickly let China know their displeasure.

[Related: How China’s New Air Defense Zone Heightens U.S., Japan Tensions]

“We have reached out in mil-to-mil channels,” said a senior defense official, who asked to speak anonymously due to the diplomatic sensitivities, “particularly in the immediate wake of this announcement, to express our concerns and to inform the Chinese military that we would not be complying — and also to encourage them to roll back or not enforce or implement the announcement. That has happened and our message was quite clear and it was received.”

The United States quickly flew a B-52 bomber through the zone without notification, in what was called a previously scheduled exercise.

“The point is already made,” the official said, “and everybody already knew Vice President Biden would be there pretty shortly,” including Chinese officials coordinating Biden’s visit with Chinese leaders.

Now, administration officials said they are watching China to see if they take any further steps to ease concerns over how they would enforce the zone, or make matters worse.

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