"When Japan does something like this, and makes a point to contest the islands, it's probably a smart move," says Snitch. "They can't contest [China] militarily, but what they can do is throw it into an international arena."
A military response invokes the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and other allied partners into protecting their own territorial claims against China.
However, the new government under Xi Jinping still has an unclear relationship with its fighting forces, says Snitch.
"You have this new group of leadership coming in who obviously have been schooled and groomed for many many years, but suddenly they're in the driver's seat and who knows how much they've been briefed on these things," he says. "The question you have to ask is, 'What is [Jinping's] relationship with the military?' I don't believe anybody in the West knows what that is."
Paul D. Shinkman is a national security reporter for U.S. News & World Report. You can follow him on Twitter or reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org