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China, Japan Ramp Up Airspace Dispute


Tensions over what is potentially one of the world's most dangerous hotspots, the East China Sea, surfaced again this week. Yesterday, the Pentagon announced that it had flown two unarmed B-52 bombers over a contested expanse of water between China and Japan. It was pushback against Beijing's recent claim that the area is covered by an air defense zone, and that passing flights must check in with Chinese authorities, something the Pentagon pointedly did not do. The U.S. seeks to preserve what it says are international rights over the area. Today, China responded to the flyovers, as NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: China's defense ministry issued a statement saying it identified the B-52s and monitored them as they flew through the defense zone. At a briefing today, Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang didn't criticized the B-52's mission. He just suggested that China has the situation under control.

QIN GANG: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: The Chinese government has ample resolve and capability to defend the country's sovereignty and security, he said. We also have the ability to exercise effective control over the East China Sea air defense identification zone. After the zone was announced last weekend, major airlines - including Japan Airlines, Singapore Airlines and Qantas - said they would comply with Beijing's demands and inform China of their flight plans. But the Japanese government says this isn't necessary. Today, Japanese airlines reversed their position and said they would stop filing flight plans.

KUNIHIKO MIYAKE: It is a provocative act, which, not only Japan, but all the international community cannot tolerate.

KUHN: Kunihiko Miyake is research director at the Canon Institute of Global Studies in Tokyo. He says the Japanese government will be keeping a close eye on how the Chinese military enforces the new zone.

MIYAKE: We can be very careful, prudent, so that we can avoid any frictions or showdown out of misunderstanding or miscalculation. But we will, of course, not give up the right of free flight in that airspace.

KUHN: Spokesman Qin Gang insists that even though foreign aircraft must obey Chinese authorities, the new zone does not restrict anybody's rights of navigation.

GANG: (Foreign language spoken)

KUHN: The zone does not affect the legal status of this airspace, he argues. It doesn't affect any country's right to fly through the area, and normal international flights will not be affected in any way. China's establishment of the zone could set back its efforts to reassure Asian neighbors of its good intentions. And it could add momentum to U.S. efforts to shift military assets to Asia. In a recent speech at Xinhua University in Beijing, University of Chicago Professor John Mearsheimer argued that as China becomes more powerful, it will make sense for it to try to push the U.S. out of Asia, just as the U.S. told European powers to stay out of the Western Hemisphere way back in 1823.

JOHN MEARSHEIMER: We have this thing called the Monroe Doctrine. The Monroe Doctrine is still operative today. If China gets really powerful, and it tries to project power into the Western Hemisphere, we will not be happy at all. Should we expect China to have its own Monroe Doctrine? Of course we should.

KUHN: The air defense zone issues seem sure to come up when Vice President Joe Biden visits China, Japan and South Korea early next month. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.