The US sends China a message with a couple of B-52 bombers

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Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman and this is The World. It feels like a throwback to the cold war; American B-52 bombers flying over the East China Sea in defiance of China's newly declared Air Defense Identification Zone. Luckily, there was no confrontation over the incident, but without a doubt tensions are on the arise between China, its neighbors, and the United States. The World's Matthew Bell keeps his eye on China and is recently back from a reporting trip there. Let's go back to last weekend, Mattew, when China drew a line in the sand, or the sea more accurately. What did they do?

Matthew Bell: They did something, Marco, that's not illegal under International law. The United State has plenty of these zones around US borders. They declared an area, just as you named, an Air Defense Identification zone. And what that means is that any aircraft that passes through there would have to notify the Chinese authorities first. Now, it might be legal, but it's also seen as extremely provocative by China's neighbors and by the United States. One reason for that, is that it extends over this area of disputed islands, they're called Senkaku by Japan and Diayu by China. These are rich fishing grounds, they're also thought to be sitting on top of deposits of natural gas and oil, so this was seen as a very aggressive move.

Marco Werman: Right, and then the US response was to quickly send two B-52 bombers into this air space that they've delineated. What was that about?

Matthew Bell: Essentially, Marco, I see this as a response to what must have been real anxiety on the part of US allies; Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, who had to be wondering 'What is the United States going to do about China's new declaration and about what they see as a provocative move.

Marco Werman: Well, I mean, China must have known that this would be provocative for Japan, for other countries in the region, as well as the US and there would be a response. Why did China do this?

Matthew Bell: China's flexing its muscles. It's a rising power economically, militarily. Japan has long been seen as a rival since the end of thee second World War. The fact that the United States is the de facto, sort of, security policeman in the whole Asia-Pacific region, doesn't really sit right with Chinese nationalist sensibilities. China is essentially projecting its influence in its own back yard.

Marco Werman: And, I got to say, it seems kind of risky for the US to flex its muscles in response to these new rules that China has made up. Was it risky?

Matthew Bell: You have to wonder what would have happened and think about unintended consequences. Remember back in 2001 there was that incident over Southern China when a US Navy spy plane had an accident with a Chinese plane. It was a big incident. But if you talk to experts, security experts in Washington, they;ll tell you that it would have been more risky for the Pentagon NOT to do anything to sort of let this move by China stand. That it was important to send a message to US allies; again, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, to say that the United States isn't going to go along with this. I talked this morning with Michael Green from Georgetown University; he's a former adviser to the National Security council on Asia affairs under George W Bush. He told me that sending in these bombers right away was absolutely the right move.

Michael Green(recorded voice): Because it demonstrated China's not going to unilaterally change the status quo by using coercion or intimidation. But the longer term game has got to be confidence building and reducing the chance of a conflict. The underlying geostrategic struggle for mastery of these waters between Japan and China, with us generally on Japan's side, is not going away. But the US has got to both dissuade China from thinking coercion will work and then start laying the groundwork for confidence building measures and ways to lower the temperature and the risk of accident.

Marco Werman: That's Asia expert Michael Green at Georgetown University. So, Matthew Bell, the famous Obama pivot to Asia, how much of it is about letting the area evolve from the old politics and how much is it about, you know, keeping an eye on things and maintaining the status quo?

Matthew Bell: On this specific issue, Marco, the status quo is absolutely what the states US policy is and the tricky part there is that the United States has treaty obligations with its longtime ally Japan and it also doesn't want to confront China. It doesn't want to be seen as constraining China or, sort of, acting against China the rising power. So this is a real tough road. Joe Biden is headed to the region next week, surely this is going to be at the top of the agenda in all of his meetings.

Marco Werman: The World's Matthew Bell, thanks a lot.

Matthew Bell: You're welcome, Marco.