Max Hastings - Perhaps it is possible - and how nice it would be to believe this - that war between the greatest nations on earth has been abolished.

The cost and the threat of nuclear escalation is so horrendous that reason argues that nothing remotely resembling the 20th century’s vast global clashes can ever happen again.

Assuredly, there can be no more Dunkirks or D-Days, because no Western nation - even the United States - can deploy a mass army. If conflict does come, it will be waged with the high-tech weapons of our own time: warplanes manned and unmanned, missiles, cyber-attack weapons and the many instruments of destruction guided from space satellites. But this would not make a great power conflict any less catastrophic.

And this is why a shiver will have run through the leaderships of Asia and of the Western powers this week when China’s ambassador to London argued that Japan risks ‘a serious threat to global peace’ by ‘rekindling’ the bellicose attitude that hastened the expansion of World War II into a global conflict. He even compared Japan today to Lord Voldemort, the arch villain in the Harry Potter novels. This comes just a few weeks after China - with absolutely no warning - declared hundreds of thousands of square miles of airspace above the East China Sea as its own Air Defence Zone.

This includes the eight tiny uninhabited pimples, called the Senkaku Islands by Japan and Diaoyu by China. Taiwan also has a claim to the islands - nationalised by Japan from private sellers in 2012, much to the anger of China.

The United States responded to this bitter dispute between Tokyo and Beijing by dispatching two USAAF B-52s bombers to overfly the islands, emphasising its commitment to the right of free navigation. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, declared gravely that China had started ‘a whole new game’. His government threatened to shoot down any Chinese drones that appeared over the Senkakus. Beijing responded that this would be an act of war.

Nobody, including the Chinese, wants armed conflict. Indeed, an analyst for the International Institute Of Strategic Studies has said that China ‘aims to push rather than break limits’.

Yet the tensions between Tokyo, Washington and Beijing have been increasing for years. For the moment, China, the US and Japan still maintain courtesies between governments. Most crucially, Beijing holds trillions of dollars of US debt. But many of history’s wars have been triggered by miscalculations while nations have been testing each other’s strengths.

Indeed, there is a profound fear in Washington, in Tokyo, and maybe also in Beijing, that one day something unspeakably ghastly could happen by mistake. Remember that in 1914 before the outbreak of World War I, Britain and Germany were each other’s largest trading partners.  China has an ever-growing fleet of missile-armed warships - thought to number around 80, as well as nearly 300 amphibious assault ships - including fast-attack craft specifically designed as ‘carrier-killers’, to engage the US Navy’s behemoths.

In response, the huge US Andersen air force base on the Pacific Ocean island of Guam has become host to a £10?billion reinforcement programme.

As a result, its hangars now hold B-2 and B-52 bombers, air-to-surface and cruise missiles, Global Hawk drones,  F-15 and F-22 fighters, the latter just a 20-minute flight from the Taiwan Strait.

Amitai Etzioni, professor of international relations at George Washington University, declares bleakly: ‘There are increasing signs that the United States and China are on a collision course.’

What is not disputed is that China is determined to assert its new status as a major regional power, while the US is equally bent upon deterring or deflecting Chinese expansionism, and especially aggressiveness. This was the reason behind President Obama’s 2010 decision to rebalance American strategic assets towards the Pacific. The American case is as readily made as was the British one, for resisting quite similar German posturing before 1914. Washington’s attitude is: ‘We and our allies are democracies, while China is an autocracy which denies respect for human rights or international law.’

As for the contrary view from Beijing itself, China’s leaders cherish a profound grievance about the Tokyo government’s persistent refusal to confront the reality of Japan’s mid-20th century war crimes in Asia. For the Tokyo government asserts that the time has passed for any Japanese apologies or even discussion of its historical record. An example of this defiance is the military museum that is situated next door to Tokyo’s Yasakuni shrine, where so many Japanese war criminals’ ashes lie and to which many Japanese politicians visit to pay homage.

While it is deemed unforgivable - and even criminal - across most of the world to deny the existence of the Nazi Holocaust of six million Jews, almost the entire Japanese nation denies its own barbarities across Asia.

This intransigence helps to explain why South Korea, for instance, recently refused to conclude an intelligence-sharing security agreement with Japan, because public opinion remains so alienated by its former oppressors’ lies about the past. For its part, the US is impatient for Japan to abandon the controversial Article 9 of its post-war constitution (imposed by America after the end of World War II), which forces the country to renounce war and restricts its armed forces to a self-defence role. Times have changed and Washington now wants to see the Japanese accept a much larger share of the responsibility for containing China. But more than a few prominent Asians are wagging a warning finger at the Americans, urging: ‘Be careful what you wish for.’

The truth is that many of Japan’s Asian neighbours - not to mention the Chinese - will never trust Tokyo until it comes clean about its dreadful history, as it seems determined not to do.

On the specific issue of the disputed Senkaku islands, China points out that Tokyo has held them only since the late 19th century, when Japan became an early entrant into the race for an Asian empire. There are economic issues at stake, too. Sovereignty claims are based on a desire to exploit the area’s rich resources in fish and hydrocarbons. Above all, though, the tension is based on much bigger ambitions.

China argues, just as Germany did before 1914 in respect of Britain’s maritime supremacy, that now it is one of the big players in Asia, there is no reason why it should accept America’s claims to Pacific hegemony. Why should Beijing tolerate US warships and aircraft conducting close surveillance of the Chinese coast? Such a presence is unjustified in an age of satellites and simply reflects a wish by America to parade its military might at the expense of Chinese dignity.

Such arguments have spread to cover debate about freedom of the internet. A Chinese army general recently dismissed American drum-banging about the importance of preserving ‘global internet freedom.’ He said that Washington was using this as an excuse to preserve its own ‘cyber-hegemony’. He added: ‘In the information era, seizing and maintaining superiority in cyberspace is more important than was seizing command of the sea and air in World War II’. Even if we British, as American allies, ultimately reject some of these arguments, we should acknowledge that the US often seems clumsy, patronising and over-bearing in its attitude to other nations.

China is a newly rich, increasingly mighty nation, which is bent upon elbowing aside the Americans, in the Pacific region at least, to assert its own claims as a Great Power. This makes it inevitable that there will be rows, confrontations, crises, some involving both nations’ armed forces.

The Pacific rim is ever more densely strewn with the toys of war. The risk of some local turf dispute exploding into a great power collision will remain alarmingly real.–Daily Mail