Vice President Biden is completing his visit to China as part of his broader trip through the region. Although China's announcement of a new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) has dominated the headlines and been a central part of the discussions everywhere he goes, he has addressed a great many issues during the past several days.
I'm particularly struck, though, by the sweet and sour mix of his meetings with Xi Jinping. They in a nutshell embody what may be enduring elements of the broader US-China official relationship.
On the sweet, positive side, there was genuine, sustained personal engagement and substantive back-and-forth. The briefing by a US official stressed how good their personal relationship is and how they talked broadly and strategically about many issues in ways that did not simply sound like negotiations. This is a huge improvement over the interactions during the 10 years of Hu Jintao's leadership. He never deviated from the the cue cards.
Second, the Chinese and Americans aren't letting disagreements on some issues hold the entire relationship hostage. The ADIZ problem isn't stopping cooperation in other areas the way a crisis would've put everything else up in the air, at least temporarily, as in the past, e.g., the 1995-96 Taiwan Straits Crisis and the May 1999 embassy bombing. The two countries are collaborating bilaterally, regionally, and globally on a host of issues. For example, in the midst of these regional events, the Chinese are in Bali at the WTO ministerial, and they've been sufficiently cooperative for there to be a deal. The recalcitrant party is India, which is opposed to a deal for ideological reasons.
And third, the disagreement over the ADIZ is being contested through international rules and their different interpretations. China did not draw vague lines in the western Pacific and start shooting willy nilly. Instead, they studied assiduously about precedents regarding ADIZ's in other countries (22 other countries have ADIZs). They gave very precise geographic coordinates, developed a justification, and are seeking recognition of its existence by others as a basis for their sovereignty claims. Of course, the Chinese are trying to change the facts on the ground (and we should expect other ADIZs before too long), but the attention to international legal frameworks is significant and now commonplace in just about everything the Chinese do.