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No sooner had China declared an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea last month than the airspace became filled with military aircraft - Japanese, South Korean, US B-52s, then Chinese.
Fears have grown that a minor incident could spark a larger crisis, bringing not only China and Japan but even China and the US into collision. Anyone would have thought from reading the Western media that the next world war was about to break out, with China the instigator.
Yet China is doing nothing unusual, let alone illegal. The US, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam have all had such zones in operation in the region for many years.
The area in question includes the uninhabited islands known as the Diaoyu to the Chinese and the Senkaku to the Japanese. Since US President Barack Obama openly declared the "pivot to Asia" in 2010, evidently to contain China, the region appears to be entering a new stage of rivalry between the two nuclear-armed superpowers with the islands as the key flashpoint.
Located 85 miles from Taiwan, 205 miles from mainland China and 275 miles west of Okinawa, the islands are under Japanese administration but are also claimed by China and Taiwan, which regard the current arrangements as a legacy of Japanese imperial rule.
The islands were ceded to Japan in 1895 following China's defeat in the first Sino-Japanese war. At the end of World War II their future was covered by the 1945 Potsdam Declaration which stipulated that the ownership of minor islands claimed by Japan was to be defined by the wartime allies, of course including the Republic of China at that time.
The US then took over their control until 1972 when they returned the islands to Japanese administration, at which point the Chinese asserted their claim.
Oil reserves were discovered in 1968 but the situation is not so much a "scramble over resources" as, for China, a matter of equal treatment. The US move in 1972 was significant. In this year of president Nixon's visit to China and following the People's Republic's resumption of its seat on the UN security council, it defined a limit on US willingness to normalise relations with mainland China.
Japan has resolutely refused to recognise that the islands are disputed. Last year, it swapped some of them at will from private to government hands amid a clamour of right-wing nationalist fervour.
This provocation to China received not a word of reprimand from the West. Indeed when Japan unilaterally doubled the size of its own ADIZ to within 80 miles of China's coast in 2010 this was effectively endorsed just a few months later by then US secretary of state Hillary Clinton who declared the islands to be covered by the US-Japan Security Pact.
She further committed the US to opposing any unilateral action that would undermine their administration by Japan. Significantly the word "unilateral" was used again in November when the US criticised China's ADIZ.
As the predominant military power in the East China Sea, with control over its key shipping lanes, the US is in a position to cut off world trade with China should any conflict arise.
This is not a status quo that China can accept for much longer. China's latest move, however, rather than being driven forward by an expansionist nationalism as Western media reports suggest, may well have been a calculated test of US intentions.
The recent easing of tensions in the Middle East has apparently left the US free to concentrate on its Pacific rebalancing. Yet at the same time the US retreat from military intervention in Syria together with the cancellation of Obama's visit to the region during the US government shutdown have raised questions about US commitment in the Asia-Pacific.
Despite dispatching the two B-52 bombers the US stopped short of calling for the ADIZ to be scrapped, much to the chagrin of the Japanese government.
Has China succeeded in dividing the US and Japan? Or is it rather that the US seeks the role of "honest broker" here between the rising regional nationalisms?
In this way Obama might reclaim US authority as world leader, a role denied it in recent developments in the Middle East by Russia's skilful diplomacy.
The US should not overestimate its ability to act as regional balancer. With feelings running high, its mixed signals could create an even more dangerous confusion.
Sino-Japanese relations resonate with the past. Today, Japan's PM Shinzo Abe, whose grandfather and mentor was a class-A war crimes suspect freed from jail by the US, faces President Xi Jinping whose father was a leading figure in the anti-Japanese resistance at the time when Abe's grandfather had command over huge numbers of industrial slaves in Manchuria.
The US-Japan Security Pact has been the incubator for Japanese militarism over decades, protecting the elite from confronting its past war crimes.
Now as incremental changes to Japan's "peace" constitution lift the lid its armed forces are falling increasingly under the control of unrepentant hawks. Meanwhile, the military scope the US-Japan alliance is inching forward.
China's increasing assertiveness, on the other hand, does not mean necessarily that its aim is to replace US with Chinese hegemony.
Xi has repeatedly stated that the Pacific ocean has enough space for two large countries. China's serious commitment to power-sharing in east Asia is clearly indicated by its dogged efforts to resume the six-party talks on Korean denuclearisation.
The failure of the US to take the opportunity this year, the 60th anniversary of the Potsdam armistice declaration, to commence negotiations on a peace treaty with North Korea is equally indicative that the US is not ready to make way for a multipolar determination of regional security.
The difficulty for the US in returning to the Potsdam declaration is that it also covers Okinawa, with its huge US base, as well as the island of Taiwan.
US power in the Asia-Pacific rests on the incomplete resolution of the second world war. China's challenge to US primacy would also involve calling the Japanese elite to account.
So long as its goals are continually thwarted Chinese nationalism, fuelled by a pride in the country's success, could propel the leadership into positions from which it is hard to retreat. A conflict in the region would be disastrous for the world economy.
There is still a way back from the brink if the China-India border defence co-operation agreement, signed in October, were to be taken as a model.
Both sides here seek to avert an escalation of tensions by committing to avoid the use of force or threat of force, to refrain from provocative actions and not to tail each others patrols.
However with the US unwilling to relinquish its power over the region Japan's leaders are free to deny the existence of disputes and a negotiated solution is ruled out.
China is left with few options. What would be the reaction if China declares further ADIZs over the seas that bear its name?
As the world prepares to mark the centenary of the first world war, will the commemorations be used to point the finger at China as the new warmonger?
This is an extended version of an article posted on Leftfootforaward.org.
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