BEIJING – U.S. Vice President Joe Biden opened a two-day visit to China Wednesday by urging young Chinese students to challenge their government, teachers and religious leaders.
Arriving midday in Beijing, Biden paid a visit to the U.S. Embassy, where he surprised Chinese citizens waiting to get visitor visas processed in the embassy’s consular section. Thanking a group of mostly young people for wanting to visit the U.S., Biden said he hoped they would learn during their visit that “innovation can only occur where you can breathe free.”
“Children in America are rewarded — not punished — for challenging the status quo,” Biden said. “The only way you make something totally new is to break the mold of what was old.”
The vice president seemed to be alluding to the authoritarian rule of China’s government as he described a liberal and permissive intellectual culture in the U.S.
“I hope you observe it when you’re there,” said Biden, flanked by U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke. “From the beginning of our country, it’s a constant stream of new immigrants, new cultures, new ideas, new religions, brand new people continuing to reinvigorate the spirit of America.”
Biden also offered measured praise for China’s educational system, a day after results from a global exam showed U.S. students once again lagging behind many of their Asian and European peers. Students in Shanghai, China’s largest city, had the top scores in all subjects on that exam.
“Even though some countries’ educational systems are better than America’s — particularly in grade school — there is one thing that’s stamped in the DNA of every American, whether they are naturalized citizens or natural-born,” Biden said. “It’s an inherent rejection of orthodoxy.”
Similar comments from Biden in the past have created a stir.
Biden’s visit comes at a tense moment for the U.S. and China, which are at odds over Beijing’s recent insistence that pilots flying through airspace over a set of disputed islands file flight plans with China’s government. On Tuesday in Tokyo, Biden said the U.S. was deeply concerned by the action and said it increased the prospects for an accident, pledging to raise the issue directly during a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping set for Wednesday.
Although Biden had hoped to focus on areas of cooperation as the U.S. seeks an expanded Asia footprint, China’s declaration of a new air defense identification zone in the East China Sea has pitted the U.S. and China against each other, creating a wide gulf that Biden will seek to bridge.
Despite Washington’s preference not to get involved in a territorial spat, concerns that China’s action could portend a broader effort to assert its dominance in the region has drawn in the U.S., putting Biden in the middle as he jets from Japan to China to South Korea on a weeklong tour of Asia.
“This action has raised regional tensions and increased the risk of accidents and miscalculation,” Biden said after meeting in Tokyo on Tuesday with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Biden said he would raise those concerns with China’s leaders “with great specificity” during his visit.
Although the U.S. has repeatedly said it rejects the ADIZ, Biden has avoided calling publicly for Beijing to retract it, wary of making demands that China is likely to snub. Rather, the U.S. hopes that with enough pressure, China will refrain from strictly enforcing the zone, essentially nullifying it for practical purposes.
What’s more, the U.S. wants to show that the diplomatic consequences for such actions are severe enough that China will think twice in the future about asserting its authority in such heavy-handed ways.
“There is a mistrust here by China of U.S. intentions,” said Sen. Ben Cardin, chair of the Senate’s Asia panel. “China is not clear why the U.S. is interested in Asia. They think it may be to affect China’s development in a negative way — and nothing could be further from the truth.”
It wasn’t always this way.
When Biden came to China two years ago, Xi brought him far away from Beijing’s congested streets and government buildings to Chengdu, an ancient city in southwestern China. At the end of a long day of touring, the two set off for a stroll to view an irrigation site built by the Qin Dynasty in 256 B.C. and still used today.
Knowing Xi was poised to become president, the White House turned to Biden to feel him out during a pair of official visits while Xi was still vice president. The goal was to make an early down payment on a relationship that would surely be critical as China gained clout on the world stage.
Whether that trust can serve as a basis for Biden and Xi to de-escalate tensions during Biden’s visit remains to be seen.