Looming battle: China vs. Japan

Tensions have ratcheted up and things could get much worse

When U.S. Vice President Joe Biden travelled to Asia in early December, his message to Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was simple: start talking. While tensions have ratcheted up in the fight over a cluster of islands in the East China Sea, experts worry things could get far worse. In fact, the most optimistic outcome for the year ahead is that the two old foes settle into an uncomfortable Cold War.

Efforts to maintain peace will be difficult because of the intense hostility and risk of incidental conflict, says Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University of China. Since China declared an air-defence zone over a large expanse of the East China Sea, Japan, the U.S. and South Korea have all defiantly sent in military aircraft. China retaliated with its own warplanes. One pilot with an itchy trigger finger could spark a war.

Biden’s two-hour visit with Xi was amiable—Xi called Biden an “old friend”—but settled nothing. China is unlikely to back down, as such a move would be a domestic embarrassment. Building up its military has been a priority lately. Its defence budget has grown and it recently sent its only aircraft carrier into the South China Sea, where it is waging similar battles over island groups with the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.

Japan’s conservative Abe, who has been in office for about a year, brings his own brand of nationalism to the fight. He’s eager to loosen the bonds of post-war pacifism and be more assertive toward China, while Japan’s brutal invasion of China in the 1930s still haunts relations.

The rise of nationalism in both China and Japan and displays of military muscle make for a potent mix. “The maintenance of a cold peace between China and Japan is still much achievable” in 2014, says Shi. But it’s far from a sure thing.