It is not difficult to identify the biggest issues facing military planners in East Asia. A resurgent China, apparently keen to begin flexing its ever-strengthening military muscles, and a North Korea that is both ambitious and more politically unstable than ever following Kim Jong Il’s death in December 2011, are providing more sleepless nights than even the perennial problems of natural resource access, smuggling of contraband and people, piracy, and home-grown terrorism.

The disputed status of a group of islands approximately 170km (105 miles) northeast of Taiwan – called variously the Tiaoyutai, the Diaoyu or the Senkaky (depending on whether you adhere to the view that they belong, respectively, to Taiwan, China or Japan) – is fast developing from a minor regional spat over a string of uninhabited rocks to a major international dispute that could lead to full-scale conflict.

In October, China unilaterally declared an Air Defense Identification Zone affecting airspace above the islands, requiring all air traffic entering the zone to file flight plans and receive authorization from Chinese air traffic control. The zone was immediately tested by American and Japanese military aircraft, which transited it without obtaining permissions.

In remarks made at a private dinner during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month, one “influential Chinese professional” was quoted as positing a “surgical invasion” of the islands. During the same event, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe told reporters that the situation between China and Japan was similar to the one that existed between Britain and Germany before the outbreak of the First World War.

The situation remains tense, its implications volatile. And in the wider context – China’s rapidly expanding defense spending and its testing and operation of increasingly advanced military technologies, allied to its growing requirement for minerals and fossil fuels – China’s evident capabilities and its numerous possible agendas remain a principal preoccupation for militaries both inside and outside the region.