BEIJING (CBS) - U.S. Vice President Joe Biden opened a two-day visit to China Wednesday by urging young Chinese students to challenge their government, teachers and religious leaders.
Arriving midday in Beijing, Biden paid a visit to the U.S. embassy, where he surprised Chinese citizens waiting to get visitor visas processed in the embassy's consular section. Thanking a group of mostly young people for wanting to visit the U.S., Biden said he hoped they would learn during their visit that "innovation can only occur where you can breathe free."
"Children in America are rewarded -- not punished -- for challenging the status quo," Biden said. "The only way you make something totally new is to break the mold of what was old."
The vice president seemed to be alluding to the authoritarian rule of China's government as he described a liberal and permissive intellectual culture in the United States.
"I hope you observe it when you're there," said Biden, flanked by U.S. Ambassador Gary Locke. "From the beginning of our country, it's a constant stream of new immigrants, new cultures, new ideas, new religions, brand new people continuing to reinvigorate the spirit of America."
Biden also offered measured praise for China's educational system, a day after results from a global exam showed American students once again lagging behind many of their Asian and European peers. Students in Shanghai, China's largest city, had the top scores in all subjects on that exam.
"Even though some countries' educational systems are better than America's - particularly in grade school - there is one thing that's stamped in the DNA of every American, whether they are naturalized citizens or natural-born," Biden said. "It's an inherent rejection of orthodoxy."
Similar comments from Biden in the past have created a stir. When Biden in May told students at the University of Pennsylvania that you can't think differently in a nation where you can't breathe free, Chinese students said they were offended and requested an apology.
Biden's visit comes at a tense moment for the U.S. and China, who are at odds over Beijing's recent insistence that pilots flying through airspace over a set of disputed islands file flight plans with China's government. On Tuesday in Tokyo, Biden said the U.S. was deeply concerned by the action and said it increased the prospects for an accident, pledging to raise the issue directly when he meets with Chinese President Xi Jingping.
Despite Washington's preference not to get involved in a territorial spat, concerns that China's action could portend a broader effort to assert its dominance in the region has drawn in the U.S., putting Biden in the middle as he jets from Japan to China to South Korea on a weeklong tour of Asia.
"We, the United States, are deeply concerned by the attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea," Biden said after meeting in Tokyo on Tuesday with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. "This action has raised regional tensions and increased the risk of accidents and miscalculation."
To that end, Biden said he would raise those concerns with China's leaders "with great specificity" during his Beijing visit.
It wasn't clear, however, to what extent Biden did raise the issue during his first meeting Wednesday with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Biden appeared somber and subdued as he and Xi spoke to reporters after a meeting that ran about an hour longer than scheduled.
They said they had discussed efforts to forge a new model for relations between the major powers, but they made no public comments about the new Chinese air defense zone. Biden said that, ultimately, the relationship must be based on trust and a positive notion of each other's motives. He says Xi was candid and constructive and called those qualities sorely needed.
The two planned another meeting and a working dinner Wednesday evening.
As if to make a point that the newly declared air defense zone would be a major topic of Biden's talks with Chinese leaders, China's Defense Ministry issued a statement reiterating the country's determination to enforce the zone just as the vice president was arriving in Beijing. China's military is "fully capable of exercising effective control" over the area covering the disputed islands in the East China Sea, said ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng.
Although the U.S. has repeatedly said it rejects the zone, Biden has avoided calling publicly for Beijing to retract it, wary of making demands that China is likely to snub. Rather, the U.S. hopes that with enough pressure, China will refrain from strictly enforcing the zone, essentially nullifying it for practical purposes.
What's more, the U.S. wants to show that the diplomatic consequences for such actions are severe enough that China will think twice in the future about asserting its authority in such heavy-handed ways. Already, China has claimed it has a sovereign right to establish a similar zone over the South China Sea, where China and the Philippines are locked in another long-running territorial dispute.
The East China Sea zone covers more than 600 miles from north to south above international waters separating China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan. China says all aircraft entering the zone must notify Chinese authorities beforehand or face unspecified defensive measures.
The new round of tensions with China comes as the U.S. is striving to increase its own engagement, influence and military presence in Asia, in part as a hedge against China's growing power. But the Obama administration has said it's pursuing a new model for engagement with China, where the two countries can cooperate economically while maintaining a healthy competition.
Stepping onto Chinese soil earlier Wednesday after his flight from Tokyo, Biden was met by a Chinese military honor guard before being whisked to the U.S. Embassy to highlight efforts to reduce visa processing times for Chinese visitors to the U.S. After an official welcome ceremony later at the Great Hall of the People, Biden was to meet with Vice President Li Yuanchao before his evening session with Xi.
Before departing China on Thursday, Biden will have breakfast with American business leaders and meet with China's premier, Li Keqiang. The vice president will then fly to Seoul, South Korea, for the final leg of his trip.