What are the chances of war breaking out between Japan and China over their competing claims of sovereignty over the tiny islands which the former call Senkaku and the latter, Diaoyu?
This was the question posed by a junior Japanese parliamentarian to a highly respected political grandee, one of the few left from the pre-war era who are still lucid in mind if somewhat frail in body. They were soaking in a very private onsen (hot spring) within an exclusive resort two hours' drive from Tokyo. The young man had managed to secure the meeting with the semi-reclusive sensei, which is the respectful term used to address very senior figures in Japanese politics, through his grand-uncle - but only after many attempts.
The old man closed his eyes and thought for what seemed like an eternity before he replied: "Tokyo has already thrown down the gauntlet by rushing to buy the islands off their private owner in the face of strong protests by both Beijing and Taipei. This is really pushing our luck.
"We may get away with it this last time but any further move which strikes the Chinese as even greater provocation is certain to leave them feeling that their backs are to the wall. They will push back - their masses, already not too happy with us Japanese, will demand that they push back - and then things will spin out of control.
"So, an all-out war, most probably not. But serious armed clashes, leading to substantial loss of lives, cannot be ruled out."
The young man said: "But, sensei, we were briefed at a party caucus last week that the purchase was to pre-empt Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara and his supporters from creating more trouble. They were talking of holding events on these islands and installing a weather station. Now that will really rile the Chinese, which is why Tokyo has to stop them. Can't the Chinese see that?"
The old man sighed, saying: "Kato-kun, that's what your party leaders would say. I bet that was what Shinsuke Sugiyama, sent by the Gaimusho to Beijing to try damage repair, hinted to the Chinese. But do you think they will swallow that?"
The young man grimaced inside at the subtle suggestion of youthful gullibility by the use of "kun", the honorific an older male uses for a younger. "But why not? Surely the Chinese will understand that with an election looming, that's the best Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda can do without getting the right-wing hawks on the warpath."
The sensei said: "See it from Beijing's perspective. It's heads we win and tails they lose. Even if it were true that the intention was to stymie Ishihara, the end result is we Japanese will come out winners. We will have asserted our sovereignty, never mind that our rhetoric is that we seek only to obtain and hold those islands, not nationalise them."
Kato said: "But those islands are ours, to begin with."
The sensei said: "It's just you and me in this onsen, so you want the naked truth? I am not so sure the facts are on our side. The Chinese cite Ming Dynasty records from the mid-14th century to show that Senkaku and other islands in the Ryukyu chain, including Okinawa, were already declaring allegiance to the Son of Hea-ven, not us, as vassal states at that time. These annals are in a museum in Britain.
"We have nothing to show. We only took those islands by force just before the first Sino-Japanese War and bullied the Qing Dynasty into ceding them as well as Taiwan to us under the 1895 Shimonoseki Treaty after we won that war. Then came World War II. In 1943, when the tide was turning against us and Germany, the Allied Powers, including China, met in Cairo and on Dec 1 issued a declaration, which, among other things, stipulated that once Japan was defeated, all that we had taken by force must be returned to the original owners.
"And on July 26, 1945, the same Allied Powers plus the So-viet Union met in Potsdam and issued another declaration reaffirming what was agreed in Cairo. Well, Kato-kun, we lost, didn't we? After we surrendered, we had to give up Taiwan, Penghu and so on, but for reasons I still cannot pinpoint, Nationalist China under Chiang Kai Shek did not take back the Ryukyu chain but agreed to joint administration with the United States.
"Maybe by that time the Yanks already had more than an inkling that the communists would soon take over China and wanted Okinawa, Senkaku and others to be part of the so-called first island chain encircling China, as part of the containment strategy formulated by the likes of then US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Perhaps Chiang was too distracted by the civil war he was fighting or was plain unable to make the Yanks hand the islands over.
"Then on Nov 21, 1969, Richard Nixon and our PM at the time, Eisaku Sato, signed an agreement in Washington to revert the administration of the Ryukyu chain to us, but with the proviso that the Americans would have the right to station forces on Okinawa. And on May 15 the next year, the islands were handed over to Tokyo. Of course both Beijing and Taipei protested loudly.
"This is why to this day, the US is careful to assert its neutrality on the issue of sovereignty, though in the very next breath, it tells the world, through Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, that should war break out, Japan would be covered by the 1952 defence treaty it signed with the US."
The old man was quite breathless by this time. Kato spoke up: "But does China really want to fight over 6.3 sq km of barren rocks?"
The sensei said: "It's not the islets and the much talked about mineral wealth beneath the surrounding seas. It's their national honour, which they cannot allow to be tarnished, especially by us Japanese who invaded them so brutally.
"Moreover, the Chinese think we have stabbed them in the back. When PM Kakuei Tanaka went to Beijing in September 1972 to reestablish diplomatic relations, it was agreed that the dispute over sovereignty would be set aside for future resolution. In October 1978, when Deng Xiaoping came to Tokyo, he made that famous remark, in reply to a question at a press conference, that resolution had best be left to wiser heads in later generations. A long period of calm between us followed until Ishihara and others of his ilk started agitating.
"This is absolutely the wrong time to test Beijing! China is on the rise and the Chinese political elite are in the midst of a difficult leadership change. History has shown that sometimes, an emerging power needs to assert itself against an existing power. In 1898, the US beat the living daylights out of the exhausted Spanish empire, ostensibly over Cuban independence. The Spaniards didn't want to fight but the Yanks needed to prove they were the next global power to be reckoned with, and went ahead to clobber them anyway.
"In 1904, we did the same. Japan shocked the world by whacking Imperial Russia on land and at sea and thereafter became the hegemon in Korea and the Liaodong Peninsula.
"Leaders also start wars when they feel their personal power and position are being challenged or when they need assurance or a distraction. By 1962, Mao Zedong had already started to feel he was being sidelined by his comrades after the disastrous Great Leap Forward and other campaigns. So he made use of a border dispute with India and launched a short war against the Indians, thrashing them decisively and assuring himself of total control over the People's Liberation Army.
"In 1979, after Deng's third rehabilitation, he needed to make sure the PLA was entirely obedient to his command. So he launched a campaign against the Vietnamese. His famous dictum then was that a naughty boy would have to be spanked if he misbehaved.
"There were of course other factors that led Mao and Deng to press the button, but don't ever underestimate the personal factor. So, now, when Xi Jinping is slated to take over from Hu Jintao, who is probably reluctant to let go of his grip over the military, and a power struggle seems to be going on, Tokyo wants to give them the catharsis they need?"
Kato took all that in. Then he exclaimed: "But no one will win if we and the Chinese start shooting!"
"Are you sure?" replied the sensei as he made his way out of the onsen, whistling The Star-Spangled Banner.
Kato was speechless.
The writer, a former editor of The Straits Times, is senior executive vice-president for marketing at Singapore Press Holdings.