ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
And I'm Melissa Block. Vice President Joe Biden is in Tokyo today. He's there to reemphasize American support for Japan as it tangles with China over contested air space. China unnerved its neighbors late last month by declaring an air identification defense zone. The zone covers disputed islands in the East China Sea. NPR's Frank Langfitt has more from Shanghai on what's behind China's latest move.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: The new air defense zone covers uninhabited islands that both China and Japan consider their own. But nobody who follows geopolitics out here thinks this is really about a bunch of rocks. Xiao Chu(ph) is a former member of China's People's Liberation Army and an independent military analyst in Shanghai.
XIAO CHU: China is transferring itself from a land power gradually to some kind of sea power. These islands or rocks are a vast opportunity to demonstrate the new naval muscles.
LANGFITT: And what's the message they want to send to Japan and the United States.
CHU: It is some kind of a Monroe doctrine with Chinese characteristics.
LANGFITT: That's Monroe, as in James Monroe, America's fifth president. In 1823, Monroe told European powers to stay out of North, South and Central America. He considered it the United States' sphere of influence. Today, China isn't telling the U.S. to get lost, at least not yet. But Xiao says as the world's number two economy and a rapidly growing military power, China's demanding more influence on what happens in the region.
CHU: They want to be admitted as the power of the region. They want to be respected as traditional naval powers, like Japan in the '30s. And this is a new role for China.
LANGFITT: The new air defense zone calls for foreign planes to submit flight plans to Beijing before entering. U.S. and Japanese military planes have so far refused. Washington and Tokyo see the zone as a tool to alter the balance of power in the East China Sea. Ni Lus Yong(ph) studies navel strategy at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. He says China is being subjected to a double standard.
NI LUS YONG: (Through translator) American and Japan have set up your own air defense identification zones. You can do it. Why can't we do it? This is unreasonable. Of course we Chinese don't buy it.
LANGFITT: China is ringed by American allies, fellow democracies such as Japan, South Korea and the Philippines. Ni says China is trying to enforce old territorial claims to protect itself so it can ensure trade and energy continue to flow safely through the south and East China Seas and fuel its economy.
YONG: (Through translator) The Chinese Navy is weak and its lifelines on the seas are exposed and vulnerable. Other countries can easily cut them off. If a war breaks out, oil can't be shipped in. Then what happens to the country?
TOMOHIKO TANIGUCHI: In one sense, their concern is understandable.
LANGFITT: Tomohiko Taniguchi serves as counselor, Japan's Cabinet Secretariat. He advises Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, on foreign policy. Taniguchi says one reason China worries is because it doesn't have powerful friends.
TANIGUCHI: Given China is allied to no major power, it has to pay due interest in safe passage.
LANGFITT: While Professor Ni describes China's navy as weak, it has, in fact, been modernizing at a rapid pace, and Taniguchi says neighbors question whether the countries growing number of ships are really just for defense.
TANIGUCHI: By building up its massive arsenal, one has to wonder if China wants to coerce its neighboring nations into succumbing to its own will.
LANGFITT: The U.S. Navy has insured peace in East Asia for decades, allowing countries, including China, to focus on building their economies and turn the region into the heart of global growth. But many analysts think a stronger, more confident China wants to change that arrangement and eventually push the U.S. Navy out of the East and South China Seas.
Tomohiko Taniguchi says analysts here see China's long term strategy like this.
TANIGUCHI: They want the U.S. military assets, the Japanese military assets, and others, to find it harder still to operate freely, and we're talking not about China's sovereign sea space, or waters, we're talking about international waters.
LANGFITT: After meeting with Japan's Prime Minister Abe today, Vice President Biden is scheduled to arrive in Beijing Wednesday morning. He and Chinese President Xi Jinping will have a lot to talk about. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.