US Vice-President Joe Biden met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday at the start of his key Asia trip.  The original rationale for Biden’s mission was re-assuring US allies about Washington’s commitment to the region following Barack Obama’s cancelled trip in October at the time of the US federal government shutdown.

However, a more pressing purpose has now arisen following China’s decision last week to declare a new “self defence identification zone”.  Inevitably, the move has provoked major regional angst, and Biden is emphasising the need for calm in Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul in coming days.

The principal tension is between Japan and China as the air zone encompasses islands which both countries claim sovereignty over.  While Washington portrays itself as a neutral party on the issue, it does recognise Tokyo’s administrative control of the islands.  Moreover, the US administration also has reportedly re-affirmed in recent days that US treaty guarantees to defend Japan in the event of a military offensive upon it also applies to the disputed islands.

Abe will have pressed Biden at their meeting for reassurances of these US security commitments, while Biden will have tried to secure a pledge that Japan will do nothing provocative in coming days that raise tension further.  Perhaps the most immediate flashpoint here could be Tokyo’s failure, to date, to adhere to Beijing’s insistence that all flights, civilian and military alike, must submit flight plans before entering.

So far, neither US nor Japanese military aircraft have complied with this request and have repeatedly flown directly through the zone in recent days.  However, a potentially key difference has opened up between Tokyo and Washington on commercial aircraft.

Whereas the Obama administration has recommended that US commercial aircraft report their flight plans into China, the Japanese have not followed suit.  This is a potentially provocative move that, for now at least, puts it out of step with its US ally.  

Japan also announced over the weekend that it has asked the UN organisation that oversees civil aviation to examine whether the Chinese air zone could undermine aviation safety.  Tokyo’s ambition here is to bring enhanced international scrutiny to this issue in a bid to undercut Beijing.

To be sure, air zones of this nature are commonplace across the world.  But, there is tension over why China has imposed this measure so swiftly and unilaterally, and also warned that it will take unspecified “emergency defensive measures” if aircraft do not comply with its edict.

Whatever Beijing’s motives, the episode will add to the growing concern and sometimes even outright hostility as China increasingly asserts its growing power.  The central challenge the country faces is that its international standing and soft power has lagged far behind its hard power built on its growing economic and military might.

In Japan, for instance, public favourability toward China fell from 34% to 15% between 2012 and 2011, according to Pew Global, largely in response to China’s new international assertiveness.  With distrust of China growing, numerous countries in Asia-Pacific are actively strengthening their diplomatic alliances with Washington in a bid to balance Beijing’s growing strength. 

The new Chinese leadership must now think urgently about how to enhance the country’s image in the world.  Most immediately, Beijing must restart a process of addressing concerns of foreign governments about its intentions.  Here, it needs to intensify efforts to be seen as a responsible, peaceful power. 

As the Pew Global data indicates, China’s international image would also benefit from enhanced public diplomacy to win more foreign ‘hearts and minds’.  International communications of Chinese state institutions often lack legitimacy and credibility with foreigners.  One solution might be expanding the numbers of non-state groups — including from civil society networks, diaspora communities, student and academic groups and business networks -- involved in the country’s diplomatic outreach.

At a symbolic level, example measures which China could dial up in its public diplomacy include the country’s growing capabilities in space travel for high-profile international cooperation projects.  Surveys underline that many around the world widely admire China’s strength in science and technology.

For many foreign publics, there also needs to be stronger Chinese commitment to domestic political change, transparency and democratisation.  Many internationally are likely to remain wary of the country while it clamps down on its own citizens seeking domestic reform.

Taken overall, the challenges ahead for China are formidable.  However, unless they are tackled, the country’s reputational problems will increasingly undermine its potential as a rising super power.

Andrew Hammond was formerly a special adviser in the UK Government of Tony Blair.