Comments by the leaders of Japan and the Philippines drawing parallels between China's growing assertiveness in the region and events in pre-war Europe are "not helpful", the commander of US air forces in the Pacific said.
"The rise of Germany and what occurred between the UK in particular and Germany, and what happened in Europe, I don't draw that comparison at all to what's going on today" in the Asia-Pacific, General Herbert "Hawk" Carlisle, said in an interview in Singapore. "Some of the things, in particular that have been done by Japan, they need to think hard about what is provocative to other nations."
The recent comments by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Philippine President Benigno Aquino - two US allies - have escalated tensions at a time when China is pushing its territorial claims in both the East and South China seas, and as President Xi Jinping expands the reach of his country's navy. Both sought to cast China's actions against the perspective of Germany's ascension in the first half of the 20th century.
"The de-escalation of tensions has got to be a multilateral approach and it's not just one country that needs to de-escalate," said Carlisle, a former fighter squadron commander who is responsible for air force operations for more than half the globe. "All of them do. The risk from miscalculation is high. It's greater than it should be."
Abe said in Switzerland late last month that Germany and Britain went to war despite strong economic ties, and warned Japan and China must avoid a similar fate. In an interview with The New York Times, Aquino called on nations last week to support the Philippines in defending its territory in the South China Sea, drawing a parallel with the West's failure to back Czechoslovakia against Adolf Hitler's demands for the Sudetenland in 1938.
China and Japan have not held a summit since Abe took office in December 2012. Protests had previously broken out in China after Japan nationalised some of the disputed Diaoyu, or Senkaku, islands in the East China Sea from a private owner.
In November, China set up an air defence zone over the area, demanding that civil and military aircraft present flight plans before entering the space. The next month, Abe further roiled ties by visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours 14 Class-A war criminals among 2.5 million Japanese war dead.
"If you look at some of the things that have been going on in the East China Sea, both militaries have been conducting themselves very professionally," Carlisle said. "But the potential for something, a mistake to occur or miscalculation or misunderstanding to occur, is out there. There is significantly more activity from both nations around the disputed territorial claims, and that to me is a risk."
Any attempt by China to replicate its air zone in the South China Sea would be a "very provocative act", Carlisle said. The US opposes any such move and "we've strongly, through diplomatic channels, made that known" to Beijing, Carlisle said.