SEOUL, South Korea — As Vice President Joe Biden left for Asia on a mission to reinforce America’s determination to be a major Pacific player, a regional crisis over disputed airspace threatened to drown out his message.
In the end, it was quite the opposite.
From one capital to the next, Biden found himself at the center of the dispute, playing referee for China and its neighbors. He also acted as emissary between Japan and South Korea in a separate feud between the U.S. allies.
The intense diplomacy on issues far removed from Washington made clear the degree to which leaders in Asia still look to America to try to solve problems when it seems like no one else can.
Biden tried repeatedly to head off the notion that the Obama administration’s push to “rebalance” its foreign policy toward a fast-growing Asia had petered out.
“The United States never says anything it does not do,” Biden said in Seoul.
Even if the White House has found it difficult to keep one foot in Asia amid crises in the Mideast, there was little doubt that Asian powers see the U.S. playing a leading role, decades after wars in Japan, Vietnam and Korea brought tens of thousands of U.S. troops to the region.
Each country wanted something specific from Biden.
Japan and South Korea wanted the U.S. to stand firm against China’s unilateral declaration of an air defense zone over disputed islands in the East China Sea. Japan, in particular, wanted assurances the U.S. wouldn’t acquiesce by advising U.S. commercial pilots to comply with the zone.
China wanted the vice president to mimic specific phrasing about pursuing a “new model of major-country relations” that’s become an officially sanctioned mantra for Chinese officials. He did, often.
South Korea wanted Biden to help choreograph an exchange of public gestures between Seoul and Tokyo to alleviate resentments over Japanese colonialism that have reached a fever pitch.
As if to demonstrate how closely Asia is watching the U.S., North Korea released an elderly U.S. tourist detained since October — hours before Biden was set to visit the Demilitarized Zone. Security experts speculated the move probably was intended to deny Biden the chance to cast a spotlight on the U.S. list of indictments against the North.
Biden just wanted everyone to cool it.
He quietly urged Beijing to refrain from enforcing the airspace zone, hoping to give the government a way out, rather than insisting that it formally rescind the zone.
He wanted Tokyo to drop its objections to a major trade deal.
He wanted Seoul to avoid sudden movements and consult with its neighbors before expanding its own air defense zone to send a stern message to China. South Korea on Sunday said it was expanding its zone, which overlaps with China’s, and the State Department said it supported the step.
It’s an open question whether Biden achieved the desired results, and all the issues he raised will require significant follow-up with the leaders he saw in Asia.
In more than one instance, Biden’s outreach seemed to brush up against the reality that some American diplomatic pursuits in Asia are working at cross purposes.
Biden said the U.S. commitment to its allies is unwavering. But the U.S. is pursuing closer economic ties with China, whose growth and increasing assertiveness have the region on edge.
Michael Green, a White House adviser on Asia in the George W. Bush administration, said by embracing Chinese diplomatic language about a new model of major-country relations, Biden sent an implicit message that America’s bonds with allies like Japan and South Korea are becoming less important.
“That was not the intended message, I am sure, but that is how it is being read by worried allied capitals,” Green said.
U.S. officials have said they don’t want to be the mediator for regional disputes in Asia. In fact, the U.S. has tried to avoid taking sides on the question of sovereignty of the islands in the East China Sea — a major point of contention for China and its neighbors.
But it’s difficult to be “all in,” as the White House has described its Asia policy, and also stay out.
Asian nations looking to the U.S. for leadership and conflict resolution may be less inclined to welcome America’s presence in the region if they perceive the U.S. only wants to engage when it has something to gain.