By Brian Klein, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Brian P. Klein is an economic consultant and former U.S. diplomat who was based in China. The views expressed are his own
In much of the world, the long curve of history continues dragging nations to the brink of conflict. Take Northeast Asia, where recent tensions between China and Japan risk erupting into conflict. The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, home to rocky outcroppings and nearby resource rich waters, have become the latest potential flashpoint.
What started as a manageable confrontation in the East China Sea between Chinese fishing vessels and Japanese Coast Guard cutters has now escalated well beyond a dispute over natural resources. Chinese fighter jets have shadowed Japanese planes in the skies above. Japan has threatened to fire warning shots. A hawkish Chinese general has warned that would be their only shot, while Beijing announced plans to formally survey the islands. The U.S. has weighed in against any unilateral action that challenges Japan's administration of the area.
If there’s a red line where rhetoric and posturing turns into open conflict (intended or otherwise) we’re close to crossing it.
And neither side shows any signs of meaningful compromise with a hawkish Shinzo Abe back as Japan’s prime minister, and Xi Jinping inheriting an increasingly nationalistic country in transition. The spiral of escalation, once started, can be difficult to unwind, especially once any real shots are fired by the increasing number of naval ships and air force patrols. Similarly, if either country attempts to land on the islands domestic calls for retaliation will be hard, if not impossible, to resist.
Further complicating this current territorial flare-up is a centuries old rivalry. An economically emboldened China, with a military budget to match, has begun reasserting itself as a regional power. For centuries, it was the undisputed hub of the region. But redressing past harm, either from early 20th Century unequal trade relations or Word War II remain a potent force in its foreign policy, a legacy Europe has managed to overcome. Enemy and ally alike integrated into NATO decades ago with Germany and Italy sitting alongside the U.S., Britain and France. Asia needs, but sorely lacks, an influential or even coherent regional security organization. Nothing of the sort exists or is planned.
There are, it is true, some small positive signs. Japan sent, and China received an official delegation to discuss the territorial dispute. Former Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama visited China’s Nanjing Massacre memorial, which marks Imperial Japan’s World War II atrocities. And just today, Bloomberg reported that Xi was said by a Japanese envoy to be considering holding a summit to discuss the crisis.
So, for now at least, the lines of communication remain open while both sides try to rein in their more hawkish extremes. But space for rational discussion has been shrinking under the pressure of nationalistic vitriol, adding to the risk of a conflict that would have devastating results for the region and international trade.
Yet conflict has never been preordained. New histories can and have been forged. Consider the U.S.-Vietnam relationship of today versus just forty years ago. Trade has replaced hostilities. Americans travel to tourist destinations in straw hats rather than as soldiers in helmets.
While the past should not be forgotten, neither should it be allowed to replay itself in an endless, self-destructive loop. Hopefully that's a lesson not lost on Beijing and Tokyo in 2013.