SEOUL — This week Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe compared his country's tense relationship with China to that of England and Germany before the outbreak of World War I.
The reference to WW I, which broke out unexpectedly, despite close economic ties between rising and fading empires, did not go unnoticed.
China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang responded sharply saying such remarks by Japanese leaders are made to evade their history of aggression, to confuse the audience and misplace concepts.
"What is the significance of making such comparisons?" he asked. "Instead of making an issue of this, it is better for Japan to reflect on its war of aggression."
Tokyo quickly denied Abe's comments were intended to suggest war is inevitable and said they were instead meant to send the message that Japan is against conflict.
During his keynote speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Abe also took public jabs at Beijing's military.
Although he did not specifically name China, Abe called for restrained military expansion in Asia as well as defense budgets that can be verified.
“If peace and stability were shaken in Asia, the knock-on effect for the entire world would be enormous," Abe said. "The dividend of growth in Asia must not be wasted on military expansion.”
China has had double-digit increases in defense spending each year for the last decade.
More recently, Beijing has undertaken increasingly assertive patrols in disputed territory in the East and South China Seas and expanded an Air Defense Identification Zone over Japan-administered islands.
The aggressive moves have unnerved neighbors already affected by China’s dominant and growing economy.
“Abe probably sees China as a modern-day imperial Germany that is prone to aggressive behavior," said Brad Williams, a professor of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong. "That, of course, could trigger conflict despite the deep economic inter-dependence between the two countries.”
Japan, under Abe, is also looking to expand the role of its self defense forces and to amend its pacifist constitution.
The changes are aimed at allowing collective defense with U.S. forces, but still alarm the country's Korean and Chinese neighbors who suffered under Japan's colonial rule and World War II aggression.
Beijing criticizes what it calls Abe's attempts to whitewash Japan's historic atrocities and his December visit to a controversial shrine that honors, among others, World War II war criminals.
The war of words has played out overseas in often bitter, and sometime bizarre, exchanges.
The Chinese and Japanese ambassadors to England compared each other's military ambitions to “Lord Voldemort,” the evil wizard in the Harry Potter series.
Tokyo Foundation research fellow Bonji Ohara says much of the tension is about nationalism, with politicians on both sides playing to a domestic audience. He says conflict, while possible, is unlikely.
“Because, fundamentally, both Japan and China understood they could not fight each other because of many reasons, military reasons and also the political, economic reasons," Ohara said. "And, the United States, of course, doesn't want to have a military clash in this region. So, the U.S. will stop both sides to fight even [if] the Japan and China recognize they cannot avoid the military clash.”
Ohara notes Washington and Beijing are engaged in diplomatic efforts to prevent conflict in the region.
The U.S. and Japan say emergency military hotlines are needed with China to prevent escalation from mistakes or miscalculation.