China is pushing international buttons and Vice President Biden is pushing the traditional envelope of his office. A few weeks ago, China declared a large defense zone over the East China Sea, which overlaps significantly with South Korea and Japan’s airspace. This declaration exacerbated tensions in an age-old territorial dispute with Japan over islands in the East China Sea, while simultaneously sparking concerns in the Asia-Pacific region and the international community at large. The United States has sent Vice President Biden, an experienced foreign policy politician, to voice concerns, reassure Japan and South Korea, and assert the U.S. as a resident power in the Pacific. Biden’s tour throughout the region and his discussions with its leaders show how the Vice Presidency has become more powerful over the years.
The importance of the office of the Vice President of the United States has not been hotly contested over the years. Historically, it has been viewed with contempt or completely forgotten. In “U.S. Vice Presidents,” Mark Rathone says that the Founding Fathers created the office “almost by accident.” According to Rathone, the Founding Fathers were afraid that electors would be more loyal to their individual state than to a new federation. To address this fear, they made it so electors had to vote for two people and one of those people could not be from their state. The person with the most votes would be president, and the runner-up would be Vice President. Additionally, they defined two jobs for the VP: the first is to take the role of president should the president die or not be able to perform for any reason and the second is to serve as the President of the United States Senate, where he or she acts as tie-breaker. Beyond that, they did not give much attention to the position.
Over the years, there have been changes in the meaning of the office of the Vice Presidency. Due to failures in the winner-runner-up system that the Founding Fathers created for matching candidates, the 12th Amendment was passed in the early 1800s. This allows Presidential nominees to pick their running mate, just as they do today. Since this system was put into place, Presidential nominees have been very strategic about choosing their running mates. Typically, candidates pick someone who can balance the ticket and bring strength to any potential weaknesses, such as politics, age, experience, etc. In the case of Barack Obama and Joe Biden, Biden provides an immense amount of experience to the ticket, especially in foreign policy. This was exactly what Obama, a young four-term senator, needed on his ticket. Some argue that this is where the Vice President’s role and power ends, but, in Rathbone’s opinion, that is no longer the case.
Vice Presidents typically spend the majority of their time fundraising, traveling, and waiting; however, the past few decades have seen a shift in the Vice President’s role, making it more influential and less tedious. This shift first occurred during Walter F. Mondale’s term as President Jimmy Carter’s Vice President from 1977-1981. Carter-Mondale changed the role of the Vice President from that of someone playing a waiting game to that of an actual politician. During his term, Mondale influenced policy, advised the president, and created institutions that furthered the role of his office and set the stage for the Vice Presidents that would come after him. Since Mondale’s time, Vice Presidents have played a more active and powerful role in politics, sometimes even being given their own issue to handle. The VPs from Mondale onward are widely regarded as the most powerful and influential VPs in our country’s history. This is especially true for Dick Cheney, who served as President George W. Bush’s VP and was a key to many of the Bush Administration’s successes.
In terms of Joe Biden and his trip to the Pacific, he is absolutely more than just a man playing a waiting game and staying alive. With his years of experience with foreign policy and his relationships with the leaders of the region, he is the perfect person to send to China, Japan, and South Korea to have these talks. By going on this trip, Biden is able to influence policy and voice his own knowledge and opinions. Handing this largely on his own allows the public to see Biden as a politician and a leader; it gives him the opportunity to show people his identify. This is something the Vice Presidents before him did not have.
The situation in the Pacific is a serious one. China’s claim challenges the sovereignty of other countries as well as the integrity of international air space. The country’s exact motives are unclear and debatable, but the claim is being regarded with suspicion and seen as an act of hostility. It is also seen as China’s direct challenge to the United States. On the other hand, Chinese analysts claim that they are well in their rights to claim its protected airspace, just like other countries have done. The timing of it all is what is creating a stir and raising concerns. To some, this claim is a move of escalation by the Chinese, further intensifying tensions in the region. Sending Biden to handle such a situation showcases his strengths as a politician and the growth of his office. It also keeps him in the running for a possible 2016 presidential nomination.
US Vice Presidents: Mark Rathbone assesses the importance of the office of ‘Veep’ (VP) over the past 220 years