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Will China and Japan go to war?

Known as the Senkaku to the Japanese and the Diaoyu to the Chinese, these islands in the East China Sea continue to be the centre of a dispute between the two countries. (REUTERS)

The war of words between China and Japan over five uninhabited islands in the East China Sea continues to escalate, with some analysts now calling it "the most serious" threat of a military conflict in the reigion since World War II.

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


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I wouldn't call the Diaoyu Islands dispute a 'core interest' issue in itself, but I would link it closely with a different issue surrounding the question of Asian Hegemony.

We need Solomon. If two countries are unable to come to terms, the disputed property should be forfeit. Give it to a poor nation and let the UN and ICC safeguard its interests. As a species we have to get beyond war. There are other urgent matters to spend our time on.

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