The continuous escalation of tensions between China and Japan over the sovereignty of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands is worrying. While Japan took an unprecedented step in nationalising the islands last year, both sides have been engaged in a shouting match that culminated most recently in the Chinese declaration of an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea covering the islands. If Japan and China continue to flex their military muscles, it would not be surprising to see military skirmishes break out one day, possibly as a result of an accident.
A number of factors have contributed to the situation.
Both Japan and China have been using ships and planes to patrol the disputed areas, without giving any concessions. Meanwhile, Tokyo refuses to admit that sovereignty disputes exist over the islands, a position contrary to that taken in 1978 when the Sino-Japanese peace and friendship treaty was signed and both sides agreed to put aside the islands' sovereignty dispute.
Since the Japanese government's nationalisation of the Senkakus, neither country any longer mentions the validity of Article 1 of the treaty, which states that both sides should conduct relations based on "mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in each other's internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit and peaceful coexistence".
Nationalism in China and Japan continues to run high, with the media on each side pointing an accusing finger at the other. The deterioration of Sino-Japanese relations since last year has, to some extent, been fostered and sustained by the nationalistic and xenophobic media.
Then there is the fact that the intermediaries who could break the diplomatic deadlock remain relatively weak. They include a few individual politicians who are sympathetic to the other side, and businesspeople. There is an almost total absence of academic seminars by think tanks in both countries that could lead to dialogue and exchanges in wider society. In short, there is a dearth of middlemen who can help break the impasse.
The United States has been mishandling the dispute as well, leading to an escalation in tensions. Former US secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton made remarks supporting Japan's nationalisation of the islands while reiterating the Washington security pact with Tokyo. Her successor John Kerry has made similar comments backing Japan.
America's position has triggered strong responses from China. Most recently, President Xi Jinping emphasised the importance of safeguarding national security in his recent speech at the party's third plenum.
Finally, both Japan and the US have underestimated the determination of China to uphold its security interests, especially at a time when Beijing has adopted a comprehensive definition of national security, which ranges from military consolidation to health crises, from environmental challenges to economic reforms, from internal governance to effective party rule, and from the realisation of the "Chinese dream" to the revival of the Chinese nation. Other countries observing China should not underestimate Beijing's political will to tighten its internal and external security. The word "security" appeared 23 times in the third plenum resolution and 14 times in Xi's explanation of the decision.
So, what should Japan and China do to avoid any military skirmishes?
First, military liaison should be established between the two sides. But for this to happen, both sides must encourage more dialogue and communications between, say, retired officers and generals.
Second, the search must continue for mediators. Not just government officials should be involved but also businesspeople who have invested in the two countries. Academics and think-tank researchers should be encouraged to explore solutions that aim to build trust.
Third, both countries should tone down their rhetoric. The Japanese right turn in domestic politics and the subsequent change in Tokyo's policy towards China have to be critically reassessed.
The mass media in both countries should perhaps re-examine their blind criticism of the other country. Otherwise, political prejudices on both sides will perpetuate deep distrust among most citizens.
In the final analysis, it is time for leaders of both countries to consider going back to the gist of the 1978 Sino-Japanese peace and friendship agreement, in which economic, cultural and human exchanges were considered far more important and valuable than any dispute over sovereignty issues.
Most importantly, Article 2 of the agreement states that neither side will seek hegemony in the Asia-Pacific. Both Japan and China should ideally uphold this important principle, even though the rise of China might have given rise to Japanese misperceptions that Beijing has been establishing its hegemony over Asia.
Ultimately, both Japan and China are regional powers in Asia that should coexist peacefully. Any military accidents over the controversial islands would be detrimental to the economic interests of not only the two nations involved but also America and all countries in Asia.
Tokyo and Beijing, with the support of Washington, must urgently search for a peaceful resolution to the dispute over the islands.
Sonny Lo is professor and head of the department of social sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education