Chinese warships have for the first time traversed La Perouse Strait, threading the narrow gap between Japan's Hokkaido and Russia's Sakhalin, and entered the open waters of the North Pacific Ocean. After completing week-long joint naval drills with the Russian Navy, the Chinese vessels could have taken a direct route to the south back to their home port of Qingdao. Instead, Beijing is sending a clear signal to Tokyo by sending China's increasingly sophisticated maritime assets on a circuit around the Japanese home islands.
This decision to take a circuitous route home comes on the heels of another symbolic projection of Chinese naval power. Last week, Chinese craft joined Russian vessels for the "Joint Sea 2013" exercises in the Sea of Japan, off the Russian Pacific port of Vladivostok. The two navies conducted three days of joint drills involving logistical collaboration and live-fire exercises.
These maneuvers were almost certainly directed at Tokyo and Washington. Both China and Russia face territorial disputes with Japan, and the two powers are America's only credible geopolitical rivals.
When sending its contingent to these inaugural Sino-Russian maritime drills, the People's Liberation Army Navy made another yet historic first by crossing the Tsushima Strait, 65 kilometers wide at its narrowest, between southern Japan and South Korea. In both the Tsushima Strait in the south and La Perouse Strait (some 40 km wide at its narrowest) in the north, more of the narrow waters could fall within Japan's exclusive territorial waters. However, Japan limits the range of its maritime sovereignty claims in these waterways to three nautical miles (5.6 km) rather than the usual 12 nautical miles in order to allow nuclear-armed America vessels passage through the strategically vital bottlenecks. 
In the wake of these displays of Chinese maritime capabilities, the Japanese government has announced a comprehensive plan to identify, name, and "nationalize" roughly 400 minor outlying islands. These small islands - some no more than rocky outcrops in the East China Sea - could be used to clearly demarcate (and perhaps expand) Japan's territorial waters and exclusive economic zones. The Japanese government maintains that the total size of Japan's territorial waters is roughly 4.47 million square kilometers - roughly 12 times the size of Japan's landmass. 
This move is almost sure to inspire Chinese anger. The focal point of the recent escalation of tensions between China and Japan was Tokyo's decision last year to "nationalize" the disputed Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu in Chinese). If any of the minor islands set to be identified by the Japanese government are claimed by China, one can expect another round of intensification in the war of words in the East China Sea.
Seeing red in a white paper
In the tense atmosphere of Sino-Japanese rivalry, words matter. Early last week, Japan for the first time specifically cited Chinese actions as threats in its annual defense white paper. This paper claims that Beijing seeks to "to change the status quo by force, based on its own assertion", is "engaging in dangerous acts that could give rise to an emergency situation", and that such moves are "incompatible with international law."  Tokyo's white paper specifically mentioned as credible dangers China's investments in submarines and the launching of its first aircraft carriers.
Beijing was swift in denouncing the Japanese report. Foreign ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying asserted Tokyo "maliciously plays up the 'China threat'" and is seeking to "to create an excuse for its military build-up". 
The fact is both Beijing and Tokyo are expanding their arsenals and making significant adjustments to their defense doctrines. The Japanese government under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is seeking to create a military outfit similar to the United States Marines - a contingent that can launch seaborne infantry assaults and hold disputed islands. Furthermore, Abe has called for amending Japan's US-imposed "peace constitution" to allow for a more proactive military posture.
Meanwhile, Beijing has made double-digit increases in military expenditures almost every year for more than a decade. While this swelling of China's military budget has largely reflected the rapid expansion of the overall Chinese economy, Beijing's expenditures on advanced submarines and ship-killing missiles cause worries for regional rivals - especially Japan.
Beijing's decision to send its vessels on the long way home through La Perouse Strait and around Japan are part of a highly symbolic effort to expand China's maritime reach. China's current naval posture is essentially designed to protect the Chinese coast in the event of a war with America in and around Taiwan. However, in the past several years Beijing has sought to expand the operational range of Chinese vessels and create a credible "blue water" fleet. Recent deployments to aid anti-piracy efforts off the coast of East Africa, the Chinese participation in last week's "Joint Sea 2013" drill with Russia, and the choice of an indirect route home from these joint exercises are all meant to enhance Chinese maritime prestige.
Domestic politics are the primary driving force for the rising tensions in the West Pacific. Elections for Japan's upper house will be held on Sunday. Prime Minister Abe is seeking to boost his foreign policy credentials. As it is, Reuters reported on Monday that final surveys before the vote showed that up to 43% of voters wanted to vote for Abe's Liberal Democratic Party, which would mean that, along with coalition partner the New Komeito, the LDP would likely win a majority in the upper house and bring an end to a "twisted parliament", where opposition control of the upper house can stymie policy moves agreed to in the lower house.
While China's political system somewhat insulates policy makers from popular opinion, a similar dynamic may be unfolding in the Middle Kingdom. China's projected economic growth rate is the slowest in 23 years, as the government is cracking down on easy credit to sort out a volatile "shadow banking" system. Tensions with Tokyo could prove a tempting diversion if the populace becomes restless from economic frustrations.
However, real geopolitical tensions coexist with these domestic distractions. The current strategic dynamic in East Asia is still largely shaped by the legacy of World War II. In the nearly seven decades since the end of that conflict, power has shifted enormously to create the current unstable climate. China's gross domestic product overtook Japan's only three years ago and is set to overtake America's within the decade (barring any truly serious economic calamity).
Meanwhile, America's economic and fiscal crisis is leading to significant military cuts, which may force Tokyo to be more self-reliant in defense. This in turn could inspire further Chinese advances in military technology. There is a real risk of a regional arms race, a miscalculation during a show of force, and a major catastrophe.
The two world wars broke out amid political stubbornness and shifting geopolitical power and ambitions. As China's sailors return home on their circular route around Japan, all relevant regional and global powers would be wise to remember the lessons of history.
1. Japan left key straits open for U.S nukes, The Japan Times, June 22 2009.
2. Govt. to preserve remote isles, The Japan News, July 16, 2013.
3. Japan's Blunt Stance Riles China, S. Korea, Defense News, July 14, 2013.
4. Tension with Japan rises over Chinese warships, Business Day, July 15, 2013.
Brendan P O'Reilly is a China-based writer and educator from Seattle. He is author of The Transcendent Harmony.