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CHINA should not have unilaterally declared a “defense identification zone” in the East China Sea on Nov. 23. Vice President Biden has stated the U.S. objections directly to that country’s leaders. It is the right position, and the administration should stick to it.

The world has moved past the time when governments could go about making unilateral territorial claims and expecting other countries to acquiesce.

Like the United States, South Korea and Japan have protested China’s move by making unannounced military overflights of the zone. Japan and South Korea have territorial claims there. America does not. The U.S. goal should be free passage, commerce and peace.

The disputed zone is mostly sea, but it includes a scattering of islands northeast of Taiwan that the Japanese call the Senkaku and the Chinese call the Diaoyutai. To put the geography into a Seattle perspective: Only one of these islands is larger than Seward Park, and that one is the size of three Seward Parks. Nobody lives on any of them and there is little practical reason to care about them except for the claim their sovereign would have to any oil and gas under the sea around them.

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People are not always practical about such things. To many in China and elsewhere, these Pacific flyspecks have become matters of national honor.

The islands were taken by Japan in 1895, the same year Japan took Taiwan. The islands came under U.S. control after World War II. The United States later turned the islands over to Japan, which became a U.S. ally.

That nobody lives on these islands makes it possible to redefine the issue as economic, which would be more easily subjected to a negotiated settlement. Japan and South Korea should be brought to the table as well as Taiwan. If there is to be any drilling, the authorities involved need to agree on the boundaries.

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