China and Japan could clash in 2013

A leading international relations expert says open warfare could break out between China and Japan in 2013.

Hugh White, a professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University, says in an article for Fairfax that the protracted dispute between China and Japan over ownership of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands could serve as a flashpoint for military conflict between the two nuclear powers next year.

According to Professor White the dispute over the islands is a symptom of tensions engendered by China's rise in the Asia-Pacific, and the challenge it poses to American influence in the region. White believes that China's recent efforts to shore up its claim upon the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands is a means of "pushing back" against US power in the Asia-Pacific.

The Chinese already harbor an intense, long-standing animosity towards Japan for the country's military aggression during the Second World War, and this latest dispute over a handful of islands in the East China Sea has stirred popular anti-Japanese sentiment into a frenzy.

White notes that such steadily escalating stand-offs over relatively trivial issues frequently serve as the starting point for war, and that under current circumstances there is a significant risk that "escalation will continue until at some point shots are exchanged, and a spiral to war begins that no one can stop."

According to White the only solution is concession by one or both sides, which will be difficult given the domestic political implications for leaders of either country.

…the crisis will not stop by itself. One side or other, or both, will have to take positive steps to break the cycle of action and reaction. This will be difficult, because any concession by either side would so easily be seen as a backdown, with huge domestic political costs and international implications

Mutual misconceptions abound on all sides and further heighten the risk of a catastrophic outcome. Both China and the US, which is the chief backer and ally of Japan, expect the other party to back off on the grounds that the two countries are economically interdependent, and an open conflict would be immensely detrimental to the interests of both.

Hat tip to Business Insider for drawing White's controversial assertion to our attention