The historical enmity between China and Japan came into sharp focus last Friday.

Within 24 hours of countering the threat posed by Russian warplanes, Japanese forces were again on high alert after Tokyo complained of aggressive behaviour by Chinese warships close to a group of small uninhabited in the South China Sea known as Diaoyu in China and Senkaku in Japan.

Although relatively insignificant, the island groups are thought to be rich in oil and gas reserves and have been the object of aggressive patrolling by Chinese and Japanese warships. In this latest incident, Japan complained the warships had locked on their fire control radar – a manoeuvre usually the prelude to firing missiles or firing the ships' guns. China rebutted the accusation and counter-claimed the Japanese had been guilty of aggressive patrolling.

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As tensions rose in the area, there were fresh calls for new protocols to be introduced to avoid clashes between rival ships or aircraft while patrolling in this sensitive area. At a regional defence conference in Indonesia, the US Pacific fleet commander Admiral Samuel Locklear reminded delegates any flashpoint had to be checked before it gave rise to a more serious confrontation.

He said: "What we need in the South China Sea is a mechanism that prevents us turning our diplomacy over to young majors and young commanders to make decisions at sea that cause a problem that escalates into a military conflict that we might not be able to control."

Getting such agreement will not be easy. Even before taking office, Chinese leader Xi has said he will not budge over China's claims to the Diaoyu/ Senkaku group of islands and Japan too is being bullish. Although their economy has been weakened in recent years, prime minister Shinzo Abe has announced an increase in national defence expenditure – the first such hike in 11 years and his rhetoric has become increasingly bellicose.

His Liberal Democratic Party is also intent in pursuing a much more assertive policy by changing the constitution to allow the armed forces to have a wider remit than self-defence. Some members are determined to acquire nuclear weapons and, on the fringes, there have been claims that Japan has no further need to be apologetic about its role in the Second World War. These are hardly the motives of a government seeking a reduction in tensions with its larger neighbour and underscores the need for an early summit meeting between Xi and Abe.