Risks are growing that incidents at sea involving China could lead to war in Asia, an Australian policy think tank warned on Tuesday.
Concentrated on the South and East China seas, the risk-taking behaviour of the Chinese military, resource needs, and greater assertiveness, raised the possibility of armed conflict that could draw in the United States and other powers, the Lowy Institute said in a report.
"China's frictions with the United States, Japan and India are likely to persist and intensify. As the number and tempo of incidents increases, so does the likelihood that an episode will escalate to armed confrontation, diplomatic crisis or possibly even conflict," the report said.
The study on major powers and maritime security in Indo-Pacific Asia was published as China prepares to unveil its first aircraft carrier, perhaps this week, a development has caused worries in the region about China's ongoing military expansion.
Earlier this month, China sent its biggest civilian patrol ship to the South China Sea. That rattled the Philippines, which makes competing claims to some waters thought to hold vast oil and gas reserves.
On Monday, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution that deplored China's use of force against Vietnamese and Philippine ships in South China Sea.
Medcalf and Heinrichs said more maritime patrols and intrusive surveillance, coupled with nationalism and resources disputes, all make it harder to manage arguments over maritime sovereignty.
The report detailed tensions between China and Japan, stemming from the April 2010 Chinese naval exercise near Japan's southern Okinawa islands, followed by Japan's arrest of a Chinese fisherman, whose trawler rammed a Japanese coastguard vessel.
Those incidents provoked a diplomatic crisis and saw China cut its exports of crucial rare earth minerals to Japan.
Despite initial signs of warmer bilateral ties following the March tsunami and nuclear crisis in Japan, security relations remain tense after Japan a month earlier scrambled fighter jets when Chinese surveillance planes approached disputed islands.
"Helicopter buzzing incidents have continued, with Japan deploring as especially insensitive an instance that occurred in the weeks following the March disaster," the report said.
It said Beijing has caused concern in other Southeast Asian nations over its "core interest" claim on the South China Sea, and in Australia about China's possible future security behaviour, while there was widespread speculation that competition between India and China at sea was "only a matter of time."
Medcalf and Heinrichs said new efforts were needed to build regional confidence and to involve China in a continued military dialogue with the United States and Japan.
They also said maritime security hotlines were needed between the U.S. and China, and Japan and China, to allow real-time responses to any incidents.