China has raised the stakes — and the risk of accidental conflict — in the East China Sea

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman, this is The World.
A clear message today, from Vice President Joe Biden, to China.

Joe Biden: We, the United States, are deeply concerned by the attempt to unilaterally change the status quo in the East China Sea.

Werman: Biden was referring to the declaration of a new air defense zone over a group of disputed islands. The declaration has raised tensions with Japan, where Biden was visiting today. The US is committed by treaty to defend Japanese security. Today, Biden reaffirmed that commitment and added a warning.

Biden: This action has raised regional tensions and increased the risk of accidents and miscalculation.

Mike McDevitt: I think the vice president is absolutely correct.

Werman: That's retired navy admiral, Mike McDevitt. He used to command a carrier battlegroup. He's also written extensively on China's push for influence in the seas around Asia as a senior analyst at CNA, a non-profit research organization in Alexandria, Virginia.

McDevitt: Because China's air defense information zone overlaps almost identically with Japan, that means that you could potentially have Japanese F-15s launched to identify an airplane coming from China, and China in turn could launch its own interceptors to go up to intercept the Japanese interceptors. So the possibility of an accident are very high, or a misjudgment. So that's, I think, what everybody's concerned about.

Werman: How dangerous do you think it could get? I mean, no one wants war, but could some low-level officer do something silly?

McDevitt: There is always that possibility. I don't think it will happen, but you can't rule it out. Clearly, by establishing this ADIZ zone, China overlapping Japan, China is demonstrating that they have a high tolerance for risk. Because by doing this, they have increased the risk of an accident. And that's, I think, the thing that has everybody very concerned. This is, to a degree, it's like throwing gasoline on a fire. The situations between Japan and China over these islands is already difficult enough, to layer this on top of it, is not very helpful.

Werman: How concerned are you, personally?

McDevitt: I guess, I would be moderately concerned. I think that the command and control in Japan and in China is such that people will be very responsible in making sure an accident doesn't happen, but accidents are, by definition, things that nobody planned to have take place, and so you can't rule it out.

Werman: What do these islands represent? I mean, how close have you actually gotten to them?

McDevitt: Oh, myself? I've... many, many years ago, I've been by them. I didn't pay much attention at the time, they were uninhabited, they have no indigenous population waiting to return, or anything like that. The islands are a combination of both symbolic, in terms of sovereignty, but more importantly, possession of the islands can potentially create an economic exclusive zone, which allows the owning state to be able to claim the resources. The fish and any oil or gas that's below the seabed.

Werman: Retired US navy admiral, Mike McDevitt, also a senior analyst at the Center for Naval Analyses. Thanks very much.

McDevitt: You're quite welcome.