Could Japan and China -- the number two and three largest economies in the world -- really get into a punch-out over five tiny islands covering less than four square miles? According to the International Crisis Group , maybe: "All the trends are in the wrong direction, and prospects of resolution are diminishing."
That the two Asian superpowers could actually come to blows seems unthinkable, but a devil's brew of suspicion, anger, ham-handed diplomacy, and a growing US military presence has escalated a minor dispute into something that could turn very ugly if someone makes a misstep.
And so far, the choreography in the region has ranged from clumsy to provocative.
A few examples:
On the anniversary of Japan's brutal 1931 attack on China, Tokyo purchased a handful of islands in the East China Sea -- known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China -- whose ownership is in dispute. In response, China accused Japan of "stealing" the islands, and anti-Japanese demonstrations and riots broke out in 80 Chinese cities. Several major Japanese companies, including Toyota, Honda, and Panasonic were forced to shut down for several days.
Amidst this tension, Washington announced that it will deploy a second anti-ballistic missile system (ABM) in Japan, supposedly to guard against North Korea, but which the Chinese charge is aimed at neutralizing their modest nuclear missile force.
"The joint missile defense system objectively encourages Japan to keep an aggressive position on the Diaoyu Islands dispute," charges Shi Yinhong, a professor of international studies at Beijing's Renmin University. Tao Wenzhao, deputy director of United States studies at China's Academy of Social Science, adds, "It is highly inappropriate and counter-constructive for the U.S. to make such a move at this highly sensitive time."
Timing wise, the island purchase and the ABM announcement seem almost consciously provocative, but Tokyo and Washington are hardly the only capitols in the Pacific guilty of inept diplomacy.
Two years ago China declared the South China Sea a "core interest area," which means Beijing essentially claimed sovereignty over 80 percent of one of the most heavily trafficked waterways in the world. China also insisted that several island groups -- the Spratleys, Parcels, and Macclesfield Bank -- were Chinese territory, and it backed this assertion up with ships and even a small garrison.
Some in China have gone as far as to claim sovereignty over the Ryukyu chain, which includes Okinawa, an island hosting several major US bases, with a population of 1.4 million Japanese citizens. Japan took control of the island group in 1879, but several hundred years earlier the independent Ryukyu Kingdom had paid tribute to China.
On top of all this, the Obama administration last year announced an Asian "pivot" and beefed up its military footprint in the region, including plans to send 2,500 Marines to Australia -- the first time US troops have been deployed on the sub-continent since the end of World War II.
Not to be outdone, China launched its first aircraft carrier, introduced a new stealth fighter, and is apparently upgrading its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Dongfeng-41. According to the Pentagon, China has 55 to 65 ICBMs and 240 nuclear warheads. In comparison, the US has over 1,000 ICBMs, 1737 strategic warheads, and over 5,000 nuclear weapons.
Feeling a little nervous? You should be. The tensions are real even though it is hard to imagine countries in the area letting things get out of hand. But when you combine overheated rhetoric with gunboat face-offs, a clumsy move, a misinterpreted act, or plain stupidity could spark something that might be difficult to contain.
So who is to blame for all this sturm und drang?
Depending on your perspective, the crisis is either triggered by the US and Japan trying to smother a rising rival in a resurgent China, or by Beijing's aggressiveness in the region creating dangerous tensions. Actually, it is a little of both and a lot more complex than it appears. First, China, Japan and the US are not the only actors in this drama. Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Russia and South Korea all have pieces on the board.