Learning from Sarajevo in Asia

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Learning from Sarajevo in Asia

A war can be triggered by a single incident. One summer day in 1914, a Bosnian-Serb student shot and killed the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne in Sarajevo, Bosnia, provoking the world’s great powers into World War I. Now, China and Japan are waging a dangerous game of chicken over disputed islands in the East China Sea. Skirmishes have intensified to such an extent that one small misstep or misleading move could spark a military clash between Asia’s two biggest economies.

Japan accused Chinese navy ships of directing radar at a Japanese destroyer and a helicopter in two separate incidents last month. The kind of radar involved is a narrow beam of radio waves used to ensure accurate tracking and targeting of weapons like missiles and bombshells. China’s actions can be understood as being just one step short of actually firing a missile. If Japan desired, it could have taken a pre-emptive attack and kicked off a full-blown military confrontation.

The two countries have been flexing their muscles through their military presence at sea and political rhetoric over the chain of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea. The dispute intensified after the Japanese government purchased and nationalized the archipelago known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

China has sent military ships and planes repeatedly into the area surrounding the islands to demonstrate its claim to sovereignty over the islands. In the meantime, Japan - under the new leadership of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe - increased defense spending and beefed up its self-defense posture. The two countries are already treading on thin ice, and if they maintain such tension, anything could happen.

The wrangling over the islets has been prompted by simmering prejudice and a war of pride between the two regional powers.

With new leaders of the two countries - Xi Jinping of China and Abe of Japan - eager to win public favor, both have a big political stake in the dispute.

If the tensions escalate to a physical clash, the United States inevitably would have to get involved according to its defense agreement with Japan. The East China Sea dispute could spark an armed conflict on a global scale.

The two countries should be wise enough to avoid war. They should recover restraint and put a stop to the dangerous confrontations by immediately taking action to ease tension. Leaders in both countries must learn lessons from the tragedy in Sarajevo.

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