Joe Biden is redefining diplomacy in China this week as he arrives for talks with President Xi Jinping. With President Obama’s perceived neglect of his plans to “pivot” US focus toward Asia, announced in the early stages of his presidency, Biden is taking up that mantle in his stead. This visit comes at a time of significant tensions in the region due to China’s proclamation regarding the disputed East China Sea air defense zone. The Vice President alluded to the issue when he visited Tokyo on Tuesday, indicating that he intended to address the issue with Chinese leaders during his visit.
He first visited the American Embassy shortly after his arrival, then proceeded with several scheduled events including an evening meeting with the Chinese President. Biden has often been criticized for his direct, and unsophisticated approach to his political duties. The theory is not universally accepted, but some on Capitol Hill believe that the same qualities that cause him difficulty at home might well serve him well in Asia. It has been suggested that his demeanor might encourage a less formal interaction between Asian and American leaders than currently exists. His visit so far has been every bit as unpredictable as anticipated. Whether or not that is good for international relations remains to be seen.
His visit to the US Embassy was intended to demonstrate a desire to speed up the processing time for Chinese citizens seeking visas to visit the United States. When he arrived, he spoke with students who were there involved in that process. Given that his comments to Chinese students last May gave offense and prompted a request for an apology, conventional wisdom would suggest that caution might be in order. Biden instead urged the students to challenge their government, religion, and conventions. The Vice President Is so well known for his guileless “blundering,” that he can say the things that most politicians would be too cautious to say without prompting an angry response, effectively redefining diplomacy in China. His comments to the students were representative of the new approach. He indicated that within the DNA of every American was, “an inherent rejection of orthodoxy.” It seems an appropriate description of the new direction.
For the time being, relations between the American and Chinese representatives appears to be amicable despite the unconventional approach. Policy makers in Washington agree that the lack of a point person for the pivot to Asia that was touted by President Obama has impacted the ability of the US to implement policy in China and address Chinese concerns effectively. There is not yet an agreement that the Vice President is the right person to fill that role. This trip might well be considered an extended audition, though with real international implications. If he is able to navigate the rest of this China trip and the next leg in South Korea without incident, it will go a long way toward establishing him as a viable international diplomat. Unconventional certainly, but Vice President Joe Biden may just have found a way to turn his reputation into a method of redefining diplomacy in China.
By Jim Malone