Christopher Johnston is a fellow at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy and a graduate of the Royal Military College, Duntroon.

The tensions between Japan and China discussed so far in this debate are linked to broader concerns about China's national identity and foreign policy goals in the Asia Pacific.

Many Asian nations are alarmed by China's behaviour. Nationalist rhetoric, revisionist maritime borders and regular confrontations at sea undermine the 'peaceful rise' argument. Is the People's Republic an emerging belligerent or will it truly seek peaceful co-existence? President Obama's withdrawal from APEC turned the spotlight on Xi Jinping, but China's new president proved unable to articulate a clear regional strategy.

Maybe that's because, as US Navy Admiral Michael McDevitt recently suggested, China may not actually possess an overarching foreign policy:

I'm increasingly coming to the view that China's reputation as a brilliant strategist is misplaced… They're very tactical [and] focused on whatever is in the inbox… Their reactions in many places seem designed to shoot themselves in the foot.

China has certainly sent mixed messages. A problematic charm offensive has given way to real antagonism over disputed territories. For the Philippines, Japan and the US, it is hard to see past the gunboats and nationalist rhetoric to discern any meaningful Chinese commitment to international norms.

Why can't China just say what it wants? The answer is: because it hasn't yet figured it out. A historical analogy could be drawn between the Meiji restoration in Japan and China's current predicament: China has identified a path to national greatness without comprehending what the destination might look like. 

When US Navy Commodore Perry blasted into Tokyo harbour in 1853, Japan's rulers were compelled to open their country to international trade. At the time, Japan was a cloistered agricultural country. When the Meiji emperor was restored in 1868 he set out to copy the infrastructure and governing principles of industrialised Europe and America. By the time of his death in 1912, his legacy included a strong central government, national rail and telecommunications network, sophisticated education system and an industrial sector. The powerful Japanese military had also proven capable of defeating Russia and China on land and at sea.

Like Japan at the turn of the last century, China has committed to national renewal. After the ruinous internal fixations of the Mao era, Deng Xiaoping reintroduced China to the international economy.

Yet China has under-invested in the instruments of sound foreign policy. It has some good schools of international relations, but no great ones. The Chinese Foreign Ministry suffers from an anaemic grasp of history. Beijing's think tank industry and public debate also remain stifled by state control (with notable exceptions).

Even Xi Jinping's concept of a 'Chinese Dream' might have been purloined from Thomas Friedman, who publicly articulated the idea twelve months ago. Last May Xi Jinping tasked his favourite think tank to figure out what his Chinese Dream might look like — the report is still pending.

In the meantime, it is easy for outsiders to mistake military capability development for national strategy. This is dangerous. Chinese military expansion is more a consequence of double-digit growth in spending, courtesy of that nation's extraordinary economic trajectory. Like any professional military, the PLA is predisposed to evolve in purpose and sophistication. It defines military objectives and adapts to likely competitors on land, sea, air and space. Unfortunately, in the absence of effective statecraft, military objectives can all too easily become national policy. This was the fate that befell imperial Japan.

China is a great power in search of a grand strategy, but whatever its future shape, it is certain to include reunification with Taiwan. Its attachment to the nine-dash-line in the South China Sea is another bellwether of armed conflict.

So as China emerges from its Meiji moment, all nations will benefit from asserting the primacy of international law in resolving regional disputes. Warning against 'coercive or unilateral measures' is entirely in our national interest. Australia should also stand squarely behind the Philippines in its quest to have the UN rule on China's extravagant maritime claims.

Australian government, defence and tertiary sectors should also meaningfully engage in China's attempt to articulate national strategy. No endeavour is more critical to the future security of the Asia Pacific.

Image courtesy of Flickr user APEC 2013.