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According to Chinese state media, China sent two fighter planes to investigate flights by a dozen U.S. and Japanese planes in its newly established maritime air defense zone over the East China Sea. The area is home to a group of islands that both China and Japan claim to own.
Last week, China announced that all aircraft entering the zone — between China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan — must notify Chinese authorities before they enter. Neighboring countries and the U.S. say they will not honor this and they have criticized the move, saying it unnecessarily raises tensions.
The BBC’s Charles Scanlon joins Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. It's HERE AND NOW. Let's start today in Asia, where tensions are rising in the air space above the East China Sea today after China said it sent two fighter jets to monitor U.S. and Japanese military aircraft as they flew over the area China has declared an air defense zone. China made that declaration this week and wants all foreign aircraft flying through the zone to give advance notice to the Chinese government.
The U.S. and China have said they will not honor the new air defense zone and vow to continue normal operations in the area. China claimed the zone on November 23, and this is the first time since then it sent up fighter jets on the same day as foreign military aircraft going through the zone.
Charles Scanlon, East Asia regional editor for the BBC, is following developments and joins us now from London. Charles, welcome to the program.
CHARLES SCANLON: Good afternoon.
CHAKRABARTI: First of all, can you just describe to us about the area that's under dispute right now in the East China Sea? What does it look like Why is it important?
SCANLON: Well, it's a very large, oblong shape that fills up most of the space between South Korea and Taiwan. The reason why it's been so controversial is because it includes an area that the Japanese consider to be their own airspace, that's over the disputed islands, the Senkaku Diaoyu Islands, isolated rocks, really, uninhabited, barren, and yet they've been at the center of this increasingly tense confrontation between China and Japan.
Up until now, the Chinese have been really probing, challenging Japanese sovereignty around those islands on the sea, sending in various patrol craft almost on a daily basis and playing a game of cat and mouse around these waters with the Japanese coast guard.
They've now taken into a whole new dimension by bringing in this air dimension. So this is stepping it up to a new level and increasing the risk of air-to-air confrontations, which is what everyone's worried about.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, what prompted China to claim this new air defense identification zone?
SCANLON: Well, of course we never know the decision-making process in the standing committee of the Politburo or the People's Liberation Army, but this does seem to be pretty consistent with China's behavior over the last 14, 15 months or so. They believe the Japanese challenged in September last year by changing the status quo, by nationalizing these islands, which had really - both sides had tried to put on the back burner.
And they want to show the Japanese that they're not going to back off, that this is a question of sovereignty, that they're the rising power in Asia. And they're going to keep pushing until they get some concessions.
CHAKRABARTI: Well, Charles, if I may ask, as you know, there is a long and sensitive history between China and Japan in particular. Does China have a legitimate defense concern here, or more broadly speaking, is this an economic issue that's being played out over the East China Sea?
SCANLON: Well, it involves - it's multi-dimensional, of course, and you're quite right, it does involve the whole historical aspect of these countries. There's unfinished business in East Asia. If anything, you could say that the Chinese population as a whole is becoming more and more nationalistic, more and more anti-Japanese. And this is to some extent being flared up by the Communist Party because it's seen as a means by the Communist Party leadership to solidify their legitimacy in this country.
So this is certainly in the deep background fueling the dispute. As far as the economy is concerned, both of these countries have an awful lot to lose by confronting each other in this way. Japan is a massive investor in the Chinese economy. The two economies were becoming increasingly integrated, and it was good news on both sides.
But, you know, nationalist passions are such, and China is so determined to assert itself as the rising power that they've almost put the economic concerns to one side.
CHAKRABARTI: Now Charles, as you know, President Obama has famously said that he wishes to pivot U.S. foreign policy towards Asia. And with that in mind, I wonder what you make of this thought that comes from Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, who's the direct of the Asia-Pacific Program at the U.S. Institute of Peace. She's been writing that, quote, unlike his predecessors, Chinese President Xi Jinping is making foreign policy with the mindset of a great power, increasingly probing U.S. commitments to its allies in the region and exploiting opportunities to change the status quo.
So how do you think this might affect U.S.-China relations?
SCANLON: If the Chinese intended this as simply a move to intimidate the Japanese, to step up the pressure and force them to back off over the islands, then they probably have miscalculated because this has brought the United States in in a big way. The very fact that the United States chose to fly B-52s up through that area just a couple of days after the Chinese announced their zone made that pretty clear.
What we're talking about is a very big grand strategy in the region. The Chinese believe that ultimately they will be the dominant military and naval power in the Western Pacific. They believe it's only a matter of time, whatever the Obama administration says, that the Americans eventually begin to back off.
And the Chinese strategy appears to be that if they push a little harder not just in the East China Sea but in the South China Sea, as well, eventually the Americans will start to back off and accept the inevitability of Chinese dominance. In fact since the Chinese started becoming increasingly assertive, the opposite has happened.
You mentioned President Obama's pivot to East Asia, the re-emphasis on their naval power in the Pacific, but there's also been a great strengthening of the U.S. alliances, with Japan and South Korea, strategic interest in Vietnam, which feels very threatened by China, the Philippines, Australia. And that really may mean that the Chinese grand strategy has so far backfired.
But China, of course, as always will be playing a long game.
CHAKRABARTI: Charles Scanlon, East Asia regional editor for the BBC, speaking to us today from London. Charles, thank you so much.
SCANLON: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.