|President Park Geun-hye and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden hold hands on their way to a meeting room at Cheong Wa Dae on Friday. (Yonhap News)|
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden reaffirmed America’s strategic shift to Asia when he met with President Park Geun-hye in Seoul on Friday for talks over regional and global issues including China’s new air defense zone and the North Korean nuclear standoff.
During his 80-minute meeting with Park at Cheong Wa Dae, Biden also noted the 60-year evolution of the alliance into a comprehensive partnership, which has contributed to peninsular, regional and global stability.
“I want to make one thing absolutely clear: President Obama’s decision to rebalance to the Pacific basin is not in question,” he said during his meeting with Park at Cheong Wa Dae.
“The United States never says anything it does not do. It’s never been a good bet to bet against America ... and America will continue to place its bet on South Korea.”
Biden arrived in Seoul on Thursday for a three-day visit. Seoul was the last leg of his Asia tour, which also took him to Japan and China.
His mention of the rebalancing policy came as skepticism over the strategy has deepened due to the financial challenges in Washington, including the congressionally mandated budget cuts, also known as the “sequestration,” and other domestic and external conundrums.
The skepticism escalated further as President Barack Obama canceled his trip to the Asia-Pacific region in October amid negotiations to address a fiscal standoff with Republican lawmakers which caused a partial government shutdown.
President Park expressed hopes that Biden’s visit to Seoul, particularly in the year when the two countries mark the 60th anniversary of their alliance, could serve as another chance to cement the bilateral partnership.
“At a time when security conditions in Northeast Asia are very fluid due to heightened tensions, your visit to the region, I believe, will contribute to promoting peace,” Park said.
“The Korea-U.S. alliance has so far served as a centerpiece of stability and prosperity in Northeast Asia. I hope that based on 60 years of mutual trust, we can further deepen our relationship.”
High on the agenda for their talks was China’s unilateral declaration of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea, which has sharply raised regional tensions as it overlaps with those of South Korea and Japan.
The two sides agreed to work closely together over the issue and recognized the need for multilateral cooperation to build a more peaceful and stable regional order, Cheong Wa Dae said.
The new air zone covers strips of airspace above Ieodo, a submerged rock controlled by South Korea, and a chain of disputed islands, called Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.
Seoul, Washington and Tokyo have refused to recognize Beijing’s air zone. In defiance of the demarcation, they have deployed military surveillance planes through the zone, as they have done in the past before Beijing’s declaration of the zone last month.
The White House on Thursday urged Beijing not to implement the new air defense zone, calling it a “dangerous and provocative” move.
Seoul plans to expand its air defense zone this week to include airspace above Ieodo and some of its other remote islands which are not covered by its current zone, set up in 1951 by the U.S. Air Force to block communist forces during the Korean War.
During his visit to Tokyo and Beijing, Biden expressed deep U.S. concerns over China’s declaration, arguing that the new air rules calling for foreign planes to file their flight plans in advance could lead to miscalculations or an accidental crisis.
During his talks with Park, Biden also welcomed Seoul’s interest in joining the Trans Pacific Partnership, a U.S.-led push to create a free trade bloc linking Pacific-rim states. He also expressed hopes that Seoul and Tokyo can make progress in improving their relations, deeply strained due to historical and territorial rows.
Later in the day, Biden delivered an emphatic speech at Yonsei University, asserting that America will continue to be a staying power in the region and play a central role in shaping a new century of prosperity and security in Asia.
“This is one of those inflection points in history,” he said.
“We can make even greater progress together in the next 60 years if we’re wise, trust one another and are willing to make some sacrifices, shaping a peace and prosperous pacific region.”
Biden is to visit the Demilitarized Zone, a buffer zone dividing the two Koreas, on Saturday amid concerns that the apparent dismissal of Jang Song-thaek, the uncle of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, could potentially be an element of instability in the reclusive state.
By Song Sang-ho