While Japan’s rivalry with China in the East China Sea is currently limited to competition over underground gas, pundits are fretting a more worrying possibility — a real conflict between the two major players.

Even if the countries do not mean to start a military clash, incidents in the sea could spin out of control, given the combination of distrust and lack of communication between the two countries, analysts and diplomats say.

“Incursions by Chinese planes and subs into Japanese waters are occurring more frequently,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“When ships and planes operate in close proximity to one another, the danger of an accident increases. Avoiding such an accident requires clear knowledge of both sides’ rules of engagement, and I am not confident (the two countries have that),” she said.

Tensions rose in November 2004 when a submerged Chinese nuclear-powered submarine entered Japanese territorial waters. Japan filed an angry protest, prompting China to claim it was not a deliberate intrusion and express regret over the incident.

Signs indicate that China continues to remain active in the East China Sea. In September, five naval ships, including a missile destroyer, were spotted near a Chinese gas field at the center of a dispute with Japan.

In the same month, a Chinese military plane — suspected to be an electronic warfare aircraft — was detected above the East China Sea south of Kyushu, according to sources.

The suspicions aren’t limited to Japan’s side of the sea.

The International Herald Leader, a weekly published by China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency, noted in October that Japan’s shipment of goods using high-speed vessels as part of its defense cooperation with the United States would enable the two to create a large, mobile logistics platform in the East China Sea.

“Japan and the United States already have strong military power (in the region),” the weekly said. “Why does Japan need such a base on the sea?”

As a way to prevent incidents from escalating into a conflict, some experts have suggested the two countries establish a crisis-management system, for example an emergency contact channel.

China and Japan can “borrow the idea of conflict management” that emerged in Sino-U.S. relations after a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. electronic surveillance plane over the South China Sea in April 2001, said Pang Zhongying, a professor at Nankai University. The fighter had been sent to track the U.S. plane, which was in international airspace. The damaged U.S. plane made an emergency landing in China.

“We need to minimize the possibility of conflict,” Pang said.

Talks over such a plan, however, are unlikely to take place anytime soon.

Chilly relations between the two countries triggered by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s visits to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo has stagnated defense exchanges between the two countries.

China sees Koizumi’s visits to the shrine, which honors Class-A war criminals along with Japan’s war dead, as an insult to a country that suffered under Japanese wartime aggression.

Discussions about how to control the handling of accidents “have never been held” between the countries, a Japanese government source said. “The two countries’ defense exchanges have not reached that level.”

Because of the deterioration in ties, a mutual fleet exchange planned by the two countries in November 2000 has not yet taken place, and bilateral defense meetings remain inactive.

The two countries’ dispute over gas development in the East China Sea does not help the situation.

China has been developing several gas fields near the Japan-drawn median line separating the two countries’ economic waters.

Beijing does not recognize the line and claims it has rights to the seabed stretching to the edge of the continental shelf near Okinawa and encompassing Taiwan.

The two countries have held three rounds of talks to settle the dispute but failed to reach a breakthrough.

Concerned that China might siphon off resources that could be buried under the seabed on the Japanese side of the median line, Tokyo has called for joint development of gas fields believed to be straddling that line.

Some say the fact that the dispute is being led by economic officials and lacks major involvement by Japanese defense officials could create problems in the event of an accident.

“In terms of crisis management, this may not be the best way to deal with the situation,” the Japanese government source said.

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