When it comes to arguments over the ownership of small islands, I think most Britons can legitimately claim some kind of special perspective. Particularly if you are old enough to remember the Falklands War, it is easy to imagine how a group of islands can overnight be transformed from somewhere you have never heard of to a vital national obsession if someone else lays a claim to them in a violent way.
So when a group of Japanese occupy an island to which China lays claim, I am not surprised to see riots breaking out and the Chinese taking out their anger on Japanese manufactured goods. In fact, it was a relief to see inanimate objects taking the brunt. But could things actually turn into a war?
Depressingly, I think the comparison with the Falklands shows that they probably can. A full scale war between Japan and China can be ruled out. The Americans would not allow it, and they have the military muscle to call the shots on that. And in any case, I doubt that either Asian government has any desire to rock the boat on such a large scale. But it is perfectly possible to have a limited armed conflict over a specific geographical region without it spreading out of control. In 1982 there was never any question of Buenos Aires or London being attacked by the other. Prisoners on both sides were handed back promptly. And both Britain and Argentina stuck to their specific war aims without escalating the conflict.
So I can’t see any reason why China and Japan shouldn’t do exactly the same thing. Both have enough hardware for a good fight. The Japanese officially don’t have much in the way of a fleet given the restrictions placed on them by the treaty at the end of World War 2. But they have got round it by having a very respectably sized coast guard indeed. In fact, the Japanese coast guards actually sank an armed North Korean ship in a 6 hour fire fight in 2001.
That China and Japan might find themselves in a shooting war over an insignificant island that has almost no relevance to their true national interests is therefore far from unlikely. And like Britain and Argentina, neither side will get any advantage out of it worth having. But the people involved on the ground will no doubt suffer. War, even a limited war, is futile and destructive. And in this case as unavoidable as it is predictable.