Lee Jin-man, Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea — Invoking the chance to remake the world, Vice President Joe Biden pledged Friday that the U.S. will play a leading role in creating a new century of prosperity and security in Asia. But he warned that without trust and common ground-rules, that collective goal could be threatened by mounting tensions on the continent.
At an elite university in South Korea, Biden pushed back against those who doubt America's resolve in Asia, where expanding the U.S. footprint has been a defining aspiration for Biden and President Barack Obama that's been obscured in recent years by an array of distractions at home and abroad.
"This is one of those inflection points in history," Biden said as he neared the end of a trip to Asia aimed at affirming that aspiration. "We actually have a chance — a chance — to bend history just slightly."
In open societies lie growth, and in growth lies peace, Biden said, laying out a broad vision for a U.S.-Asia bond in which cooperation coexists with intense competition. Tracing the arc of South Korea's evolution since the end of the Korean War, Biden held up this northeast Asian nation as a model for others seeking to emerge from chaos and authoritarianism.
To that end, Biden called on Asian countries to open their economies, drop trade barriers, create opportunities for women and cooperate on environmental protection. He called for Asia to adopt a single set of rules to govern relations between nations in a neighborhood where many of the most powerful nations are bitterly feuding.
"With this growth have come new tensions, above and beyond the enduring threats that we face," Biden said. "The rules and norms that help advance security and prosperity are still evolving to keep pace with the remarkable changes of the 21st century."
Such threats became the backdrop for Biden's weeklong tour of South Korea, Japan and China, where Biden found himself playing mediator for pressing international disputes in a departure from the softer diplomacy typical of vice presidential visits.
South Korea and Japan, the two closest U.S. allies in the region, are engaged in a painful dispute driven by historical enmities dating nearly a century. And there are new, worrying signs from North Korea. Biden vowed the world would not tolerate Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program, adding the U.S. was willing to resume multiparty talks with the North if it agrees to full denuclearization.
In the choppy waters separating South Korea, China and Japan, a turbulent dispute over Beijing's claim to airspace over contested islands hanged over Biden's Asia trip. Seizing an opportunity to implore Asian nations to stop provoking one another, Biden said he had stressed to Chinese President Xi Jinping that the U.S. military plans to ignore China's demand that planes flying through the airspace first notify Beijing.
"It will have no effect on American operations. Just ask my general," Biden said. "None. Zero."
The vice president's words, like his trip to Asia, sought to put a fine point on the Obama administration's intention to realign America's foreign-policy focus toward Asia. The U.S. sees the potential for massive growth here, but worries that authoritarian China will fill the power void by asserting itself more aggressively against its neighbors.
"If we're going to be honest about it, China is not the only country being assertive right now," Jonathan Pollack, an Asia policy expert at the non-partisan Brookings Institution, said ahead of Biden's speech. "All the states involved are trying to buy themselves more latitude in their decision-making, more space. That's all well and good — until something you don't want to happen does."
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