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From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Audie Cornish.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel called his counterpart in Japan today to discuss new tensions with China. China has declared a new air defense zone over the East China Sea. Japan has refused to recognize it and has continued commercial flights through the area. And yesterday, the U.S. dispatched two unarmed B52 bombers through the zone.
To better understand the dispute and the relationship between China and Japan, we turn to Sheila Smith. She's senior fellow for Japan Studies with the Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome, Sheila.
SHEILA SMITH: Thank you.
CORNISH: So this disputed space is around a group of islands that are effectively controlled by Japan, the Senkaku Islands. And Defense Secretary Hagel affirmed that the U.S. would defend that as part of the Mutual Defense Treaty with Japan. Tell us more about the islands?
SMITH: Sure. The islands are offshore of Okinawa Prefecture, which is Japan's southernmost region. They're uninhabited and they are quite far out into the East China Sea. The two countries have differed over sovereignty since the early 1970s. The United States occupied Okinawa and in the process of negotiating a return to Japan, in the early 1970s, China and at the time the Republic of China disputed the fact that these belonged to Japan. So the sovereignty claims have of the Chinese have existed since the 70s.
CORNISH: We just say China, of course, disputes the Japanese claim on the islands.
SMITH: That's right, and since the early 1970s when the United States was returning these islands to Japan. Both of that time the Republic of China and the People's Republic of China contested that return.
CORNISH: So what does this disputed airspace symbolize?
SMITH: Well, there's two parts of this really. One is, is that the Japanese and Chinese are increasingly in contact with each other across the East China Sea. And that's your fisherman, its government agencies doing surveys for seabed resources and, of course, it's the two militaries. China and Japan however don't have an agreement on a maritime boundary. And this ADIZ that China announced on Saturday also puts the air space above the East China Sea in contest.
CORNISH: So how seriously are people taking this latest diplomatic disagreement?
SMITH: Very seriously. I think, you know, the island dispute has erupted to damage relations fairly severely between Tokyo and Beijing. But the reality is, from last summer until this year, the Chinese have been putting a lot of pressure on the Japanese, trying to assert their own claim to the island. So the actions on Saturday really add an escalatory dynamics to the interaction that is very dangerous. And also tests in many ways the U.S. commitment to defend Japan.
CORNISH: And the president has for months talked about a so-called pivot in U.S. foreign policy to the Pacific, or rebalancing. How does this show the complications of that?
SMITH: Well, you know, the Obama administration - in the first administration - was very specific about American engagement in Asia, both economic, political and strategic interests in the region. I think they have also worked very hard to win cage with Beijing. It's a rising power. It has immense economic influence in the region and now a growing military influence as well.
This puts a particular strain on that military-to-military conversation, because it really does challenge the U.S. military's access and operations that are necessary to defense of its allies in the region.
CORNISH: So next week, Vice President Joe Biden is scheduled to visit the region. He's going to China, Japan and South Korea. What are you going to be watching for out of that trip?
SMITH: Well, clearly there'll be two pieces of the puzzle for the vice president. The first, of course, will be to reassure allies - first and foremost Japan but also South Korea. This Chinese announcement has not only affected Japan's air defenses but also affects South Korea. On the second side of Vice President Biden's trip will be his conversation with Beijing. And I expect that that conversation will focus very clearly on what this air defense ambition of the Chinese is really all about.
CORNISH: That's Sheila Smith. She's senior fellow for Japan Studies with the Council on Foreign Relations. Thank you.
SMITH: It was my pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.