The close student of history might think that the stand-off between Japan and China over the sovereignty of a few small islands in the South China Sea has a very close resemblance to the international landscape just before the start of the First World War 99 years ago. In the past week, Japan and China have been playing military chicken, each hoping the other blinks before a massive conflagration. The resemblance to August 1914 goes beyond the way in which both sides are ratcheting up the bluster, threats and the pressure, primarily for domestic political consumption rather than tactical or serious strategic advantage, against the risk that even a slight political or military miscalculation or chance event (like an assassination in Sarajevo) actually sets off conflicts no one intended, expected or actually wanted. It also has parallels with the potential for such a conflict, whether started by China or Japan, to explode domino-like into a much wider brawl, inevitably causing confrontation between China and the US, and, unwilling but unavoidable entry by most of the northern Pacific nations, including Russia, Vietnam, the Koreas, the Philippines and Australia, and, probably India. It is impossible to calculate how such a conflict would go, but it would be catastrophic for millions of people, with survivors wondering why it came to escalate so quickly and to become, so suddenly, for two countries such a critical matter worth staking their national survival.
No one can firmly say which nation ''has'' sovereignty over the Diaoyu or Senkaku Islands. Of themselves, they have little economic value, other than that the nation which can claim to ''own'' them can claim the right to exploit the adjacent sea for any mineral or petroleum wealth. Ownership depends on where one starts the clock, and China has as good a case as Japan, of itself a reason why Japan must negotiate. China had practical ownership and control until the late 19th century when an awakening and expansionist Japan annexed it during a period when China had been weakened by confrontations and concession to western powers and Japan. China claims that it protested strongly at the time, and certainly, laid claim for their return at the end of the Second World War. At one stage both countries agreed to hold their competing claims in suspense, but neither withdrew them.
The US has tacitly recognised the Japanese claim, and, foolishly, intimated that it would go to war to defend it. But the US rationale does not resolve an issue that precedes its treaty relationships, and its status quo argument might suggest, wrongly, that it likewise admits Russia's claim both to the former Japanese territory of Sakhalin and all the Kuril Islands, including the ones Japan denies ever ceding.
Like China's disputes over other islands with Vietnam, Russia, the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia, argument is kept alive by the prospect of oil and mineral claims as well as economic zones, but, in recent times, a generally peaceful status quo has been aggravated by nationalistic bombast, in Japan as much as in China. China's belligerence is aggravated by unresolved anger at Japanese aggression against China in the 1930s and 1940s, and its fear that Japan's raising of the temperature is part of an American strategy of ''encircling'' China.
Likewise, some politicians in Japan are sick of apologising for Japan 70 years ago - indeed regretful that it has ever apologised. Some who yearn to see Japan play a stronger role in world and regional affairs, including one that recognises potential threats to the peace from China and Vietnam. That Japan is presently trying, again, to stimulate a flagging economy, in part by increased military spending, is not helping. But China itself has many hotheads using the dispute as the symbol of arguments about its rights and duties, its unwillingness to be pressured by the US, and its concept of its new role in the world. One might not think, from each other's rhetoric, that Japan and China were not near neighbours and each other's biggest trading partners, or that both, as manufacturers and traders, did not have a major interest in sustained peace. Australia, as friend, ally, seller, buyer or even mere neighbour has a vital interest in promoting peace and negotiation, and in not lending itself, or being lent, as a pawn on either side of a principle hardly worth fighting about. Our diplomatic efforts are far better focused on this - where we have, if we are sensible, and independent some possibility of influence - than in posturing over events in Mali and Algeria, where our influence, in the Security Council, is zero.