Will China and Japan go to war?
The rhetoric reached dangerous levels Friday when China's Ministry of National Defence issued a statement claming Japan had "hyped up the so-called 'China threat,'" by accusing China of putting a radar lock on Japanese military vessels monitoring Chinese ships in the area. The use of radar locks is highly provocative and can be a momentary prelude to a military attack.
The incident is claimed to have taken place Jan. 30 but China denies it. Still, the rhetoric on both sides has only escalated.
"Japan has repeatedly spread false accusations which distorted the facts," China said, "and (thereby) recklessly created tension and misled international public opinion." China denies it used fire control radar.
In another sign of heightened seriousness in the dispute, Japan's Asahi Shimbun reported that China recently created a new task force to oversee its claims to the islands with Communist Party chief Xi Jinping at the helm. This would strongly suggest that the dispute has now escalated into what the Chinese call a "core interest" issue, equal to the reunification of Taiwan, as well as China's sovereignty over Tibet.
The Japanese news organization claimed military sources told it that both countries had scrambled jet fighters over the islands in a Jan. 19 stand-off.
"The situation is certainly the most serious for Sino-Japanese relations in the post-war period in terms of the risk of militarized conflict," University of Warwick's professor Chris Hughes told the BBC.
But the conflict over the islands - the Japanese call them Senkaku, the Chinese call them Diaoyu - carries an even greater risk: dragging in the United States, Japan's most powerful ally.
It wasn't that long ago that President Obama made clear that his administration would maintain a more muscular presence in the region.
If conflict the were to explode, it would put the President's promise to the test.
Bill Schiller has held bureau postings for the Toronto Star in Johannesburg, Berlin, London and Beijing. He is a NNA and Amnesty International Award winner, and a Harvard Nieman Fellow from the class of '06. Follow him on Twitter @wschiller