Generally speaking, Japanese bureaucrats are not much given to exaggeration. So when a senior government insider in Tokyo, speaking off the record, recently compared the deteriorating security situation in East Asia to Europe in the 1930s amid the rise of fascism, it was time to sit up and take notice.

“Tensions are getting very high in this part of the world,” the official said. “There are huge arms sales from Russia, the US and Europe. China’s defence spending has seen double-digit growth each year since 1989. US influence in the region is receding.”

Bad blood between Japan and China runs deep and, in the modern era, dates from the 1931 invasion of Manchuria. Following its defeat in 1945 and its adoption of a pacifist constitution, Japan became wholly dependent on the US for its defence. Some analysts claim it has long been in Tokyo’s interests to play up the China “threat”. But objectively speaking, the threat is real, and it becomes tangibly more worrying by the day.

Extraordinarily rapid economic growth in China in recent decades, which has seen it overtake Japan as the world’s second-largest economy, and the concomitant expansion of Beijing’s political, diplomatic and military might have set alarm bells clanging across the region as never before.

Tellingly, the Japanese official’s warning came days before China unexpectedly declared a new air-defence zone in the East China sea, covering the Senkaku islands (Diaoyu to China) that are viewed in Tokyo as sovereign Japanese territory. The ensuing row saw Japan, the US and South Korea send fighter aircraft into the zone in open, dangerous defiance of Beijing’s strictures. A subsequent mediation mission by the US vice-president failed to resolve the stand-off.

Nobody is talking openly about a third world war, not yet at least. But there is a growing awareness that the seeds of a possible future superpower collision are being sown around the islands, rocks and shoals, and in the overpopulated sea lanes and airspace beyond China’s historic borders, to which Beijing lays claim with growing political robustness and ever-improving military capacity. The lack of a regional security organisation, the absence of a hotline between Beijing and Tokyo, and the ever-present menace represented by the nuclear-armed, Chinese-backed regime in North Korea all add to the inherent dangers of the current situation.

Three men currently hold the key to what may happen in 2014. One is Xi Jinping, paramount leader of the Chinese Communist party and People’s Liberation Army, who succeeded Hu Jintao as president last March. In a sharp change of tone, Xi has dropped Hu’s talk of a magnanimous China’s peaceful rise and substituted a tougher, nationalist-sounding message stressing pride in one’s country at home and asserting China’s rights on the international stage with “indomitable will”.

At a recent party plenum, Xi successfully pushed through an ambitious reform programme while strengthening his grip on power. “Xi emerged from the plenum as the most powerful Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping,” said analyst William Pesek. “Xi may be especially willing to risk a confrontation with Japan right now in order to distract opponents of his proposed reforms, as well as ordinary Chinese who are growing restless over pollution, income inequality and official corruption.”

Xi’s rise to power has coincided with the emergence of a similarly hard-headed individual as Japan’s prime minister. Shinzo Abe, who took office around the same time as Xi, has his own agenda for dealing with China. An unrepentant nationalist, Abe says it is past time for Japan to drop its pacifist laws, recognise the many threats to its security, and stand up boldly for its interests and values. To this end he has increased defence spending, created a new national security council, strengthened alliances with countries such as the Philippines (which has its own territorial dispute with China), and plans to buy advanced new US weaponry.

“Japan is back,” Abe declared during a visit to Washington last year. For this and other reasons, Xi has refused to meet him, as has South Korea’s president. Official media denounce Abe as a revisionist and militarist. This chilly impasse has worsened the strains over China’s new air zone.

The third key player in this unfolding drama is Barack Obama, who has bigger guns and more ships and planes than the other two combined. Like the rest of the world, the US administration can think of a thousand reasons why a war in East Asia would be disastrously self-defeating for all concerned, starting with the negative impact on international trade, finance and American debt.

But aware of the perception that US regional influence is receding, and that the smallest spark could cause a conflagration, Obama has shifted his approach. His so-called “pivot” to Asia, giving the area a higher foreign policy priority, is principally aimed (despite denials) at countering Chinese blue-water navy ambitions in the Pacific and other unsettling manifestations of Chinese power projection.

Regional observers question how serious Obama is about the China “threat” and whether, for example, he would really come to Japan’s defence if the Senkaku dispute degenerated into a shooting war. Perhaps 2014 will provide the answer.

—By arrangement with the Guardian

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