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China gives no ground to Biden in air zone dispute

BEIJING — Giving no ground, Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden traded strong arguments Wednesday over China's contentious new air defense zone, with little indication of progress toward defusing a situation that is raising anxieties across Asia and beyond.

Though Biden made clear the deep concern of the U.S. and other countries during the 5 ½ hours of talks — themselves highly unusual for an American vice president and Chinese president — Xi vigorously made his case, too, for China's declaration of new rules concerning a strip of airspace more than 600 miles long above disputed islands in the East China Sea.

Speaking to American business leaders here the next morning, Biden said he had been "very direct" about the firm U.S. position and Washington's expectations for Beijing in his conversation with Xi.

"China's recent and sudden announcement of a new air defense identification zone has, to state the obvious, caused significant apprehension in the region," Biden said.

But Biden said he also put the issue in a broader context when he met with Chinese leaders. As China's economy grows, its stake in regional security grows, too, because China will have more to lose. "That's why China will bear increasing responsibility to contribute positively to peace and security," he said.

The U.S. worries that China's demand that pilots entering the airspace file flight plans with Beijing could lead to an accident or a confrontation spiraling dangerously out of control. Now it is up to the Chinese to take steps to lower tensions, and "it's a question of behavior and action," said a U.S. official, who briefed reporters on the private talks.

The official was not authorized to be quoted by name and spoke only on condition of anonymity.

Though Biden expressed no disappointment publicly, the outcome of his visit was not what the U.S. might have hoped for.

Earlier in the week, the vice president had stood shoulder to shoulder in Tokyo with the leader of Japan, China's regional rival, pledging to raise Washington's concerns with Xi directly. But as he arrived in Beijing, an editorial in the state-run China Daily charged Washington with "turning a blind eye to Tokyo's provocations," warning that Biden would hit a dead end should he come "simply to repeat his government's previous erroneous and one-sided remarks."

Echoing Biden's concerns from Washington, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called China's announcement of the zone "destabilizing," complaining that it came without consultation. "That's not a wise course of action to take for any country," Hagel said at a Pentagon news conference.

Neither Biden nor Xi mentioned the dispute as they appeared briefly before reporters during the talks. But in private, the issue came up at length at the beginning and again near the end of the long-planned meeting, which also focused heavily on concerns about North Korea's nuclear program, senior Obama administration officials said.

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